The English language has lots of rules, but the one I dislike the most is assigning the personal pronoun “it” when discussing animals. People are never referred to as “it.” People pronouns are he or she, him or her and his or hers.
Human beings are living, sentient creatures who think, feel pain and joy, interact with their environment and so much more. But wait — so are animals! Then why are animals considered an it?
Historically, animals have not fared well in the human eye. We eat animals, we wear them, we use them to carry our heavy loads, we race them without regard for their welfare and we breed them in the name of money. Some get to be pets, but not even all of those escape abuse and torture at the hands of humans. The general attitude seems to be: if you are not human then you are there to serve humans’ needs. Does anyone else see something terribly wrong with this picture?
Way back in 2007, Anna West, Director of Written Communications for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) wrote to AP (Associated Press) editor Norm Goldstein asking AP to change the AP Stylebook’s (the definitive guide for journalists) grammatical rules to reflect that animals are living beings and not inanimate objects. The complete letter can be read here.
The response from AP was that the AP Stylebook already reflects that change. However, AP guidelines say, “Do not apply a personal pronoun to an animal unless its sex has been established or the animal has a name.” Otherwise “it” is the default.
Extrapolate that to mean a dog named Harry is a “he”, a mare (female horse) is a “she” and a wild turkey is an “it.” Does that seem right to you?
For centuries, defaulting to he, him or his when human gender wasn’t known was considered correct. With the advent of women’s rights, that generally accepted grammatical style is no longer appropriate. So why then doesn’t the AP Stylebook instruct us to call humans “it” when their sex or name is unknown?
I posit that it’s because the prevailing attitude still exists that non-human animals are less important, have less value to society, and have less rights to life and happiness than human ones. That needs to change.
When I met a Greyhound named Ed, I erroneously referred to the pooch as “him” and was immediately corrected by the human family that Ed is a girl! Knowing the name doesn’t always verify gender, does it?
It’s not only the AP Stylebook that confirms this bias. If you use spell/grammar check in commonly used word processing programs, the sentence “The dog who fell down hurt her paw” gets corrected to “The dog that fell down hurt its paw.” Of course, if you feel like I do on this subject, all you have to do is click “ignore rule” rather than “change.” Though, wouldn’t not having to always click “ignore rule” make much more sense?
The New York Times Best Seller list book by Dave Pelzer, “A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive,” chronicles an unfathomable account of child abuse experienced by the author as a young boy by his sadistic mother. The title alone makes you cringe because calling a child by the pronoun meant to describe an inanimate object just seems wrong, doesn’t it?
The reason it’s wrong is because a child is a young human being and not a thing. A table is an it; so are a coffee pot and a hammer. But a child called it? It’s counter-intuitive.
Then one can argue, and so do I, that animals who have so many of the same abilities to feel and live their lives should not be called it. It’s time to make this change.
My point here is that language is fluid; it is ever-evolving. It’s okay to make changes to grammar when the times and attitudes progress. So what are we waiting for?
A few years ago, In Defense of Animals (IDA) ran a campaign to change the term pet owner to pet guardian. This wasn’t about changing any rules, but it did raise awareness about how language can shape attitudes. Once awareness is raised, change can occur.
I would like to propose the pronoun “it” should never be considered acceptable when referring to animals, and that the substitution “s/he” become the norm. PETA’s TeachKind.org website offers a guide to writing and speaking tips that suggests this simple change. And a very smart idea it is!
If you agree, please sign the Care2 petition asking AP Stylebook to change its rules to no longer use the pronoun “it” in reference to animals under any circumstances. Help spread the word that words matter.
No animal should ever be called “it.”
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