He, she and it

Recently I wrote an article about cats, in which I used the pronouns “he” and “she” to refer to cats in general, rather than one specific animal. The editor changed them all to “it”. I found that something of a shock. I never think of my animals as “it”, even when they’ve had the bits removed that make them specifically “he” or “she”. Sky said farewell to her ovaries long ago, but she is still, as far as I’m concerned, “she” rather than “it”.

I’ve also seen articles about horse racing in which a horse is referred to as “it” even when the animal has been previously identified as a filly (female) or colt (male).

This puzzles me, especially in a species that has, by and large, made a habit of assigning gender to unknown humans, usually with the masculine pronoun “he” and even the masculine noun “man”. (The argument that “man” means “human” doesn’t wash. If it did, the “all men are created equal” clause in the American bill of rights would automatically have included women, and they wouldn’t need an Equal Rights Amendment.)

So what pronoun should one use when referring to an animal? All I can give is my own thoughts on this, and I’m pretty sure to put backs up somewhere, because I tend to think of animals as people in that they also have emotions, intentions and wants. When I wrote about how my buck goat Hulk got all three of the doe goats pregnant in a day and a half, and then had food and scritches for a whole year based on that, I ended with “some people really know how to manage things”. One of my readers amended “people” to “beings”, and I amended it right back.

My rule of thumb is this: if you don’t know the gender of the animal, you can say “it”. Once you’ve established the gender, you must use the correct pronoun, or else look like someone who isn’t even reading his, her or its own prose. “The horse” can be “it”, but “the filly” must be “she” and “the colt” must be “he”

Perhaps it’s this attitude that makes it easier for me to write stories in which the line between human and animal blurs or disappears. I know that it probably helps me hear (and see, since animals use so much body language) what my animals are thinking, and what they want to tell me.

Another editor, meanwhile, thinks that we should use “he” and “she” in the pet article, if for no other reason than that people usually don’t think of their pets as “it”, however they feel about other animals. Whichever way the article ends up, it’s an insight, I believe, into how we regard those who share the world with us. If werewolves and swanfolk really are real, they’re going to be a lot safer in a world that can see animals as something other than “it”.

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2 Responses to He, she and it

  1. We still call our cat ‘he’ even though he’s been ‘fixed’ and further still, because of a problem with urinary crystals, had an operation where his male part was cut back and opened up so he literally had as big an opening as a female cat. To us, he’s still a ‘he’. I have several friends who also believe pets are ‘family’ – whether male, female, dog, cat, it really doesn’t matter to them. They all have genders and all have gender-related mannerisms. Stick to your guns with the editors. If you’re writing about animals, your readers will relate to gender pronouns. 🙂

  2. jlcannon says:

    Anyone who’s known animals as pets or drudges (think mules, sheepdogs, et. al.) knows that said animals have not only names chosen for gender, they have personalities as recognizable as ours (lumping humankind together, that is). Forget about objections to anthropomorphism and stick to your stand. Readers who quibble probably aren’t interested in what you’re writing anyway, and you know you don’t care about their opinions.

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