Dogs, Cats And Cows: ‘Who’ Or ‘Which’?

Picture of farm anilams - should be used for animals?If you’re one of the millions of pet owners in the United States, I have a question for you: Do you call your dog or cat (or turtle, bird or gerbil) a he, a she or an it?

This might not appear to be an earth-shaking grammatical issue, but the New York Times considered it important enough — or maybe simply interesting enough — to publish an article about animals and how we refer to their gender:

Is a Cow a ‘Who’ or a ‘Which?’ Our Standards Editor Weighs In

The who vs. which topic was prompted by Peter Singer, described as a “Princeton philosopher and intellectual champion of the animal-rights movement.”

Singer wrote to the newspaper about the word choice in another Times story, noting that he appreciated the “Who” reference to the cow in the headline:

Cow Who Escaped New York Slaughterhouse Finds Sanctuary

As reported, the cow (she?), now known as Freddy (he?), slipped from certain doom and was captured while strolling through Queens. After a visit to a veterinarian, Freddy was taken to a farm, where his revised future means “a life of leisure” with other “cow friends.”

Animals: he, she or it … who or which?
My grammar guide of choice, The Associated Press Stylebook, provides this guideline about referring to animals:

animals Do not apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless its sex has been established or the animal has a name: The dog was scared; it barked. Rover was scared; he barked. The cat, which was scared, ran to its basket. Susie the cat, who was scared, ran to her gasket. The bull tosses his horns. (italics mine)

You get the idea.

So why should we pay attention to this question — whether an animal is essentially a who or an it?

Because not everyone considers it a purely grammatical issue; there’s a philosophical component.

Readers weigh in: animals aren’t ‘things.’
Singer isn’t the only one who appreciated that the Times referred to Freddy the bovine as “who,” implying the notion of animals as individuals.

One Times reader commented:
By using the pronoun “it” we dissociate ourselves from other animals and reinforce the false view of them as things. This practice replicates and encourages wrongful, disrespectful behavior toward them.

Another wrote:
As long as we continue to deny the individuality of our nonhuman earthlings, we are far from the path of true compassion.

The Times explains its “Who” decision:

… it seems most common for English speakers to reserve “he,” “she” and “who” for animals with whom we feel a personal connection. Otherwise, “it,” “that” and “which” seem to be the norm.

The writer who reported on Freddy’s escape obviously felt a personal connection with him. (Or her? Read on.)

But there’s more: Freddy’s a ‘cow’?
The story has another dimension: the fact that “cow” generally implies a fully grown female animal of a domesticated breed of ox, used as a source of milk or beef.

But no one would name a female bovine Freddy, right?

So is he a bull? A bull is defined as an intact (i.e., not castrated) adult male of the species Bos taurus (cattle).

No one with the facts called Freddy a bull.

Perhaps he is a steer, which is defined as a male bovine animal, and especially a domestic ox (Bos taurus), castrated before sexual maturity.

Here’s how the Times justified calling Freddy a cow:

Oddly, despite the ubiquity of domesticated cattle, there isn’t a common nongendered singular term in English for the animal. … most dictionaries — as well as common usage — accept “cow” as a generic term in casual or colloquial uses. So if you see such an animal running down the street in Queens, it’s safe to shout, “Runaway cow!” even if you don’t have time to verify its sex.

We’ve addressed the cow-as-who-vs.-which issue.

And we’ve addressed the cow-as-nonengendered-bovine issue.

In these two Times stories — as in many instances, whether news reports, conversations or business emails — words matter. They have implications and connotations.

That’s part of the reason I’ve had a lifetime fascination with grammar. And it’s why, as a ruthless editor, I encourage writers and speakers to use care in choosing their words.

If you’ve followed this long post to the end, you must care as well!

Thanks for reading, and please visit my blog archives for other posts about using care when choosing words.


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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)