Impersonal Pronouns: The Politics of Calling Pets He, She or (God Forbid) ... It
I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately. Between a book project, my medical records, and miscellaneous other technical stuff, it turns out I’ve got plenty of opportunity to use pronouns in place of words like pets, cat, kittens, puppy, dog, etc. Which means I’ve had cause to get especially creative on the use of pronouns.
In case you need a refresher, here’s one:
(Linguistics / Grammar) one of a class of words that serves to replace a noun phrase that has already been or is about to be mentioned in the sentence or context
[from Latin prōnōmen, from pro-1 + nōmen noun]
Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
Yes pronouns, those humble stand-ins for nouns. They pose a problem in plenty of veterinary settings. After all, it’s way too easy to get all impersonal when referring to pets in speech or writing.
An example? OK, here’s one:
I was helping my son write a proposal for a science fair project on how different ethnic groups comprehend pain in dogs and cats. A little vet medicine, a little ethnology, a lot of statistics. Not a sexy subject but definitely a contribution to the world — and, of course, to his own personal understanding of how science gets done in real life.
Here’s the problem: We have to decide whether we refer to the dogs and cats in the proposal (and, ultimately, in the survey) as he, she, s/he, him/her, and/or it.
This example could just as easily refer to my medical records, a colleague’s scholarly paper pending peer review or an article you might read online on the merits and pitfalls of letting your dogs and cats eat grass. Because, if we’re going to get all science-y about it, "it" is not only perfectly appropriate, it’s an efficient way to refer to our patients.
No doubt, you’ll protest it’s impersonal. But here’s the clincher: Much as you and I recoil against the use of "it" in real life, the truth is that our animals are technically not persons.
Therefore, it’s perfectly acceptable to use this pronoun to refer to pets. Much though it grates, it could be argued it’s a more appropriate approach when conducting serious science.
But will the science fair judges, the peers conducting the reviews, and the judge (who’s potentially poised to render judgment of my records on some legal matter) feel the same way?
Like it or not, it’s not just purebreds. Even pronouns have politics … sigh…
Dr. Patty Khuly