How to Handle Animal Pronouns: He, She or It?

Q: When I write stories that include horses, is it grammatically correct for me to say “he” or “she” when I write about a horse? Also when referring to a horse in context, can I write “who” and “whom”; e.g., “Whom shall I ride today?” —Hans C.

A: It’s not often we get grammar questions about animals—it’s even less often that we get one with two different answers. But that’s what we have here. 

An animal is referred as “it” unless the relationship is personal (like a pet that has a name). Then it’s OK to use “he” or “she” when referring to the animal. This also applies to using “who” and “whom.” If the animal has a personal relationship with the person, then use “who” or “whom.” Otherwise you must exclusively use “which” or “that.” Here’s an example that incorporates both of these rules:

Personal: My horse, whom I call Steve, is my best friend. He comforts me when I ride him.

Generic: The stray dog, which I saw chasing its own tail, was shedding hair.

The “personal” rule also holds true if you’re writing a kids book and the animals can talk—as you’re giving them human traits and making them characters your readers can get to know. Even if the animals don’t have specific names, they are given personalities and this is enough to make them personal.

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3 thoughts on “How to Handle Animal Pronouns: He, She or It?

  1. Sarah Bates

    This is a welcome addition to the grammar rules. No only do I have pet animals with whom I have friendships of a sort––you know cats are funny that way, my short stories usually have animals in them. I also write text for a pet fan website. Thanks for addressing this peculiar grammar problem!

  2. Amy D. Shojai, CABC

    Actually, in my experience, most of the "pet press" (dog and cat and horse, even bird magazines) do use pronouns for animals. All of my nonfiction pet books use he/she to refer to pets and NEVER use "it." Depending on your audience, you risk offending pet owners, 70 percent of whom consider their companion animals to be family members. In pet books I’ve written and/or reviewed, authors tend to alternate gender-specific pronouns by chapter, or designate in the beginning that all pets will be referred to as "he" and all owners/veterinarians as "she" for example.

    For general writer venues (that is, non-pet-specific publications), I bow to Mr. Klem’s wisdom. *vbg* My newspaper column follows his rules, for example.

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