Gender Pronouns for Animals: Reference with Reverence
When it comes to writing about animals, the issue of gender pronouns often pops up. Should you call the family cat in your story a he, she, or it? What about the neighborhood coyote? The doe in the woods? Or the yapping terrier in the passing car?
As writers, we may not put much thought into something as seemingly insignificant as animal gender. Who really cares what we call them, right? Actually, our readers do, more than we might think. And it isn’t worth it to assume otherwise because our respectability—and our potential sales—could be at stake.
Unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to gender pronouns for animals. Generally speaking, personal pronouns shouldn't be used unless the sex of the animal has been established. That’s straight from the AP Stylebook. But before you start calling every dog, cat, and fox an it, consider this advice from my ebook No Average Writer:
Some writers prefer to take a more personal approach to the treatment of animals in writing, especially domesticated and familiar animals. To call a stray kitten an it, for example, may seem cold and inhumane. The problem with using he, the formerly accepted generic pronoun for people, is that it’s now considered sexist and inappropriate. But while he may offend some readers, using she isn't exactly a fair alternative.
When he/she or it doesn't do the trick, writers have the option to reword their writing. One way to do that is to choose the plural form of the animal. For example, the sentence “When a dog feels ill, he chews grass for comfort” could be changed to “When dogs feel ill, they chew grass for comfort.” However, as William Zinsser explains in his classic book On Writing Well, “this is good only in small doses. A style that converts every ‘he’ into a ‘they’ will quickly turn to mush.”
For some writers, using the phrases he or she and him or her for an animal whose gender isn’t known can work too, although this will also get tiresome and clutter the writing. Another option is to change the pronoun to a noun (i.e., instead of using he for a dog, substitute the dog. the pooch, the pup, etc.).
Sometimes, whether to give an animal a gender pronoun depends on the publication where the writing will appear. For example, the Humane Society, PETA, and other organizations devoted to the compassionate treatment of animals might frown on using it in their publications when referring to an animal. Choosing either he or she and then using that pronoun consistently might be a better approach for them. On the other hand, a newspaper aimed at the general public may favor the pronoun it for animals.
Bottom line? Next time you write about animals, consider gender pronouns carefully—and then reference with reverence. You’ll make your readers happy and your writing more credible and thoughtful.
For more information on gender pronouns for animals, see No Average Writer.