The Grammarphobia Blog

The cat and the hat

Q: I wonder if this sentence uses the word “who” correctly: “The cat who spat at me didn’t like my hat.”

 A: The question here is whether it’s all right to use “who” (instead of “that” or “which”) in reference to an animal.

We briefly touched on this subject a few years ago in answering a “who/that” question about people and things.

A person, as we explained, can be either a “that” or a “who.” A thing, on the other hand, is always a “that.”

But what about Benji and Morris?

Dogs and cats aren’t people, but they aren’t quite things, either. Is an animal a “that” or a “who”?

This is how Pat answers the question in the third edition of her grammar and usage book Woe Is I:

“If the animal is anonymous, it’s a that: There’s the dog that won the Frisbee competition.

“If the animal has a name, he or she can be either a who or a that: Morris is a cat who knows what he likes.”

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has similar advice: “Use who if the animal’s sex is known or if it has been personalized with a name. Otherwise, use that or which.”

As for the cat you mention, it seems pretty anonymous, so use “that.”

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