In a past post, I explored various guidelines for referring to an animal by the gendered pronouns he and she rather than the neutral pronoun it. But what about the relative pronoun who, which generally applies to people? Can you write “The cat who sits on the porch every morning has bright, green eyes”? Or do you need to write “The cat that sits on the porch every morning has bright, green eyes”?
Much like the pronoun it, the answer depends on your preferred style guide. The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style) says that animals with names should be referred to as who, while animals without names should be referred to as that or which.1
Sir Snuffles, the terrier who saved the drowning baby, was given an award for bravery.
The bald eagles that arrive every winter always draw a crowd.
The turtle, which lives in the backyard, enjoys sunbathing on the patio.
In contrast, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) and The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style) both say that animals should be referred to as that or which, and neither offers an exemption for named animals (not even for Sir Snuffles).2
Some animal lovers may be disheartened by the fact that the guidebooks mentioned above do show a strong preference for reserving who for humans; however, if your content isn’t guidebook specific, you can still confidently use the relative pronoun who when referencing animals—because Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says you can! 3 Yes, Merriam-Webster’s third entry for who mentions animals and includes a canine example. Go, dogs! And cats . . . and turtles . . . and eagles . . . and bears . . .
1. The Associated Press Stylebook 2019 (New York: Associated Press, 2019) 280, 315.
2. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association) 79; The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 201) 5.56.
3. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., s.v. “who.”