Ad and marketing creatives

"Whose" an Animate Object?

When robot butlers earn their rightful place in Consumer Reports, I'll let that august publication determine whether the product under scrutiny is an "it" or a "him." At this point in the history of humankind, however, there's little cause for speculation as to what is or is not an animate object.

Surely, proclamations like "It's alive!" — as opposed to "He's alive!" — have muddied the waters since at least 1931. And speakers of various languages assign gender designations to nouns, producing results like "das Mädchen" — Mädchen is German for "girl" but the definite article "das" signifies a gender-neutral, i.e. "neuter," noun, with its intimation of inanimation (let's not even get INTO the German insistence on capitalizing common nouns). But in 2011 America, there's no doubt as to what is an "it" and what is a "him" or "her."

And yet you frequently come across sentences like this: "As the Houston show was being announced, another [Norton] Simon show was at the Princeton University Art Museum, complete with a catalog whose cover featured Van Gogh's portrait of his mother." Why, pray tell, must we refer to the cover of the catalog with the word "whose?" I'll tell you why: The writer of this article felt it was just too awkward to say, "complete with a catalog the cover of which featured Van Gogh's portrait of his mother." There, I said it — "the cover of which"; was that so terrible? Did you realize when I said "the cover of which" that I was referring to the cover of the catalog? Yes, you did. Is it necessary to confer a beating heart upon the cover of the catalog? No, it isn't.

To the credit of writers who go with "whose" under such circumstances, there are instances in which the "of which" construction is unduly awkward. That's when you put on your thinking cap and reword the sentence (or even split it into two sentences). Just as there's more than one way to skin a cat (ew), there's more than one way to present an idea on the page.

I, for one, prefer to chance a moment of awkwardness than risk that the reader stops reading altogether, responding, however subconsciously, to a fundamental failure of logic. I can't read a sentence with this use of "whose" in it without a pang of cognitive dissonance; that little voice in my head says, "The cover of a catalog is a thing, not a person," and then I start thinking about that instead of what the writer is trying to convey.

Furthermore, "animate" vs. "inanimate" is about as black-and-white a distinction as you'll find when parsing questions of language. Thus the use of "whose" when referring to the possession of a sentient being can be enjoyed without hesitation. Even when we're talking about personal property — I should probably just cite cats and dogs here, but the Three-Fifths Compromise, recently not read aloud on the House floor, comes to mind — it's crystal clear that the subject of the possessive is a so-called "animate antecedent." There's no need to do the grammatical math, no need to convert "you and I" into "we" or "you and me" into "us"; the only calculation is "living or not." Shouldn't we just enjoy the certainty either way?

(And while I'm up here on my high horse, I often come across instances in which the living are robbed of their humanity by careless scribes. This is more common in poor marketing copy and clumsy business correspondence than, say, a Los Angeles Times story comparing famous local art collectors, but it's still all too common. Men and women [and, for that matter, cats and dogs] should be referred to as "who" not "that." For instance, you wouldn't say, "The copywriter that injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner"; you'd say, "The copywriter who injured herself trying to dismount from her high horse was named Julia Rubiner." You might be forgiven for getting this wrong if you were in, oh, I dunno, elementary school, but even then, your teacher should correct you.)

For all its riches, English lacks a "whose" for inanimate objects. Perhaps it's time we invented one. Please leave your submissions in the comments below.

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.