Clarity and Pronouns: Let It Go

Karin Cather - Editorial Services

By Karin Cather

Editor & Ghostwriter

Published August 21, 2015

The death of one animal went viral this summer. A lion was tortured to death and mutilated for fun by a dentist from Minnesota.

But what does this have to do with language? With editing?

Plenty. The object of writing is to convey the author’s intended message to their intended audience in the most effective way possible. In order to do that in the first place, the writer needs to be clear on what that message is. So the first order of business for any author is to achieve clarity of thought. But language can affect thinking. If we change language, we can begin to change thinking.

That is not as totalitarian as it sounds. For instance, we used to refer to women as either Miss or Mrs. But men were always just Mr. Then Ms. came along in the mid-sixties or so, when people started to decide that the marital status of a woman was irrelevant unless she was, for example, in family court. Or dead without a will. Mrs. has not disappeared from the lexicon, but the Associated Press Stylebook says that reporters should

[r]efer to both men and women by first and last name, without courtesy titles, on first reference: Susan Smith or Robert Smith. Refer to both men and women by last name, without courtesy titles, in subsequent references. Use the courtesy titles Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. only in direct quotations or after first reference when a woman specifically requests it.[1]

Cecil was not the only animal whose gratuitous death sparked outrage and a call to action, his was just the most recent one. The fact that this lion had a name was only incidental to the level of outrage. Since the news broke, Palmer has shuttered his business and may face criminal charges. As a result of Cecil’s death, Delta Airlines, American Airlines, and United Airlines have banned the transport of hunting trophies. So have Air Canada and British Airways. Theo Bronkhorst was the businessman who arranged for Palmer to kill Cecil. He is taking heat, too. But before Cecil’s death came to light, there were others.

We learned, for example, that a woman by the name of Sabrina Corgatelli kills endangered animals and then brags about it on social media. Sky News quotes her, so that we can see why she does it: “Such a (sic) amazing animal!! I couldn’t be any happier!! My emotion after getting him was a feeling I will never forget!!!”

We learned that veterinarian Kristen Lindsey shot a domestic cat through the head with an arrow and then posted the photograph on her Facebook page. It went viral. She lost her job, and she was investigated for animal cruelty.

We learned that Kendall Jones and Rebecca Francis both kill a veritable Noah’s ark of wildlife. About this, animal rights advocate Ricky Gervais commented: “If they were providing a service they would be the ones being paid. Imagine a vet paying you to put down your dog and then taking a selfie next to the corpse. And as for ‘the money goes to saving their remaining animals’, oh dear. Where will it end? Can you pay more to kill the leopard with a hammer if that’s your perversion?”

People are even rallying to save sharks—an act that would have been unheard of decades ago. This summer a group of people saved a beached seven-foot great white shark. Then the world recoiled after footage went viral of a whale shark being butchered alive in a market in China. I am not going to post the link here, because the image on the page is just too disturbing, and you might want to be able to sleep tonight. But you can find the story in many places, including the Daily Mirror.[2] The outrage about the torture of the shark—a shark!—is nearly unanimous.[3] The perpetrators do not live in a developing country, they live in a major economic superpower. Forty years ago we were all watching that dreadful movie Jaws.[4]

A recent attempt to bring back foxhunting in England failed on the heels of public outrage—because enough voters are now apparently revolted by the killing of foxes for recreational purposes. The targets of that outrage were among the financial and political elite of England.

People no longer care only about photogenic animals, or the practices of developing countries, or of women: Factory farms have been filmed by undercover animal rights activists so that the world can see what actually happens in a slaughterhouse. This practice caused the slaughterhouse lobby to seek the passage of ag-gag laws—laws that make it a crime for animal rights activists to film slaughterhouses so that the world can see just exactly where our meat comes from. One such ag-gag law was just overturned in Idaho. So, people want to stop how large corporations in the US treat animals, too.

What, as authors and editors, should we make of all of this? Well, there is obviously a shift in the way that people view animals. People reject, in larger and larger numbers, the idea that animals are nothing but a life support system for a hamburger, or decorations for a wall, or things to kill for fun. Consequently, it’s time to stop referring to animals as it. Your desktop PC is an it. So is your car, your couch, and your favorite pair of jeans. But we as a civilization are discussing whether we should change how we treat animals. While we have that conversation with ourselves, we should all agree, at the very least, that the pig you ate for breakfast should not be an it, and the cat who is sitting on the documents on your desk as you read this isn’t an it, either. While we discuss what we think about whale sharks being sawed apart while they’re alive over the course of an hour or so, we should at least admit to ourselves that we are talking about a live animal—and we can’t discuss that as long as we talk about the shark using the same pronoun that we use for a flat tire.

Debate all day and all night about habitat loss, recreational butchery of endangered animals, about factory farms and ag-gag laws. Argue about what are the best policies to cope with climate change. But use the proper pronouns. The taking of a life has real consequences, and we ought to be honest with ourselves when we do it. So if we’re talking about animals, we should use he, she, or they. It has to go.

Of course, if I’m editing your content, you can decide to refer to your pet dog as an it, because you’re the author and it’s your call. All I’m asking you to do in this post is consider not doing that.

[1] The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2013. s.vv. “courtesy titles.”

[2] Andrew Hewitt, “Sickening footage shows whale shark being slaughtered into pieces while still alive at Chinese Market,” August 7, 2015. Daily Mirror.

[3] Concededly, at the time of this writing, there is ambivalence about sharks. There appears to be more shark sightings–and shark bites–this summer, but there is controversy about how to respond. There is no longer undivided support for killing sharks.

[4] Yes, there were delightful moments and good actors in this movie. For example, those of us who saw the movie when it was released in 1975 probably all still remember when Robert Shaw raked his fingernails down a blackboard. That does not change the fact that the movie inaccurately portrayed white sharks as man-eating killing machines.

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2 Comments

  1. Kristi

    Thought-provoking. I actually am reminded how in the world of wildlife appreciation, so often we call the animal a default “he” when we can’t tell the gender (an old standard in writing, too). A soaring eagle is called “he.” A frog or salamander, “he.” And so on. So often I’ll consciously use “she” as an equal possibility. I think that “it” leaves room for an animal to be either gender; I don’t see this reducing it to an inanimate object. When we watch a rabbit, I’m happy saying “Oh, it took a leap over the birds!” — it hasn’t occurred to me to say “Oh, they took a leap over the birds!” When the gender is clear (the nursing rabbit is clearly a she, the rosy red house finch is a he), I always use the gendered pronoun. Re: your note 16, in my own writing about animals (more apropos to your post), I use he/she/it. I see no insult in the “it”; in my view, it is not improper and doesn’t reduce the animal to an inanimate object (and sadly, being an obvious “he,” and referred to as such, did not protect Cecil from being murdered and reduced to an inanimate “trophy”). My authorial choice. As an editor, I wouldn’t “correct” an author’s “it” to “they,” either. My editorial choice, and also Merriam-Webster 11th: “it: that one — . . . a person or animal whose sex is unknown or disregarded *don’t know who it is*” (Needless to say, animals are just as valuable and important with or without a human-applied name; the “Tom the Dancing Bug” comic did a great riff on the power of a human-applied name to stir affection and outrage; I’ve shared on Facebook.) Finally, a note [17] is indicated for “It has to go,” but the note seems to be missing; I’d like to see it. Thank you for making me give this some thought, too!

    Reply
    • Karin Cather

      I disagree that Cecil got the attention that he got only because he had a name. Or that he was a photogenic animal with a name. Or that we were picking on a developing country while hypocritically ignoring the plight of animals in the developed world. I think that I’ve established that Cecil’s having a name was only peripheral. His name was shorthand for that practically tame lion who got shot by a dentist’s arrow and died a slow and painful death. The cat with the arrow through his head did not have a name. Neither did the whale shark. Neither do the millions of animals a year who are butchered in US (and Canadian?) slaughterhouses. Neither do the foxes in England. But their causes have gone viral, sparked intense debate and soul-searching, and the taking on of governmental and corporate policy.

      I saw the “Tom the Dancing Bug” article. I thought it was funny, but only up to a point. There is an undertone of “How dare you be upset about a stupid lion or a bunch of sharks when human beings are being murdered by racists!” going on. I think that is needlessly inflammatory. It’s possible to be outraged by racism and also advocate for animals.

      Also, thanks for calling my attention to the typo. There is no note 17. 🙂

      Reply
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