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A question struck me one day when I was writing a blog post and wanted to use the relative pronoun who on non-human subject such as a virus. I had seen many examples before where this pronoun, which is used chiefly to refer to humans, is being used on non-human subjects and they appear idiomatic:

Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn't Know She Was Extinct

He plays Andrew Martin, a robot who, over 200 years, discovers what it means to be human. (From a 1999 edition of USAToday. I discovered it on COCA.)

They doubtless were Thark warriors who had been sent out to capture us. (From A Princess of Mars.)

In common usage ‘animals’ only refers to animals who aren't human

If my analysis is correct, it appears that the use of who on non-human subjects is acceptable when there are signs of personification (example 1), or the non-human subject actually possesses human-like properties and resembles a human in many ways (example 2, 3).

In example 4 I find it a little bit tricky to justify the use of who. The reason why the author chose the pronoun who rather than which or that probably has to do with how the expression reads and sounds, which he stated in the endnote as the reason why he/she didn't use the phrase animals other than humans. So here is my question:

It was due to the dengue virus who infected my stromal cells and impaired my bone marrow.

Can I justify the use of who in this sentence I wrote by giving a similar argument such as I like the way it reads and sounds as the presence of who makes the virus seem like a person and that's my intention? Or in other words, will the sentence be considered ungrammatical since I use the pronoun who instead of that or which, even though my intention is to make in-human subject seem like a person?

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    For a blog post, I don't think anyone will call foul (except the usual grammar nazis, but they will call foul over anything), and I think the personification of the virus as an active creature with intent justifies your use of 'who' over 'which'. Though it's somewhat iffy, since the virus is actually a group, and not an individual. Personally I would find it a little unusual, but wouldn't call foul on the phraseology. – Zibbobz Dec 4 '13 at 20:18
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    Unlike Zibbobz, I would definitely react to this ‘who’. A dengue virus is not close enough to being animate that it allows for anthropomorphism without some further linguistic acrobatics. The phrase as it is sounds odd to me, and if you did jump through hoops to animate the virus, the entire context would probably end up being quite odd: “It was because of Johnny, which is my pet name for the dengue virus who infected …” could just about work for me, but is just plain weird. I would use ‘that’ instead without a moment’s hesitation. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 4 '13 at 20:28
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You can quasi-justify anything, realistically speaking. But why bother? Not only is it linguistically and even grammatically iffy at best, it is going to throw off a good chunk of your more perceptive audience members if not for a mere second. For the purposes of communication, it would be hard to justify it as it does little to clarify your statement, rather it will most likely obscure it.

Going along with the idea of good communication, I think the only way 'who' would be appropriate for the virus is if your are attempting to convey to your audience that the suffering through the virus instilled a sense of bitterness and symbolic hatred towards this thing enough that you would anthropomorphize it as to provide further clarity on your feelings.

So it depends on what message you are trying to communicate, but more than likely it would not benefit you to use who as opposed to almost anything else (which, that, etc).

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Who is used to refer to people and to non-human objects for whom the speaker has a degree of affection. You might reasonably say, "Meet my dog, Fido. He's the one I was telling you about who bit the postman." But, you'd probably say, "There is the snake that bit my dog." Dengue is the virus that is making me sick. But, "I've been developing virus vectors to deliver genomic DNA in a therapeutic setting for the past five years. I've worked with over 178 strains, but this one, MOS-bp-234, is my favorite little phage. He's the one whom I'd want delivering the adenovirus vaccine up my nose. In other words, successfully using who/whom for a non-human requires a degree of affection for the antecedent and a fairly casual register.

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As you noted, the use of "who" instead of "which" is part of the personification in the blog post. Before the use of the pronoun the robots were called "warriors" and that sort of imagery invoked the feeling of a person.

However, in the sentence you gave, the only personification present was the use of the pronoun.

It was due to the dengue virus who infected my stromal cells and impaired my bone marrow.

I think in this case it will be seen as an error unless you dress up the statemement a bit more:

It was due to the dengue virus, a legion of attackers who infected my stromal cells and impaired my bone marrow.

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Would you use the 'who' in both negative and positive connotation regarding the subject?

  • 'The virus whom I love is named Elga.'

  • 'The virus who infected me also killed me.'

Also, what is the context of what you are writing, a scientific article or science fiction?

Science may not like 'who', whereas science fiction, depending on the context, would be ok with it.

  • The context is mentioned in the very first line of the question—there’s even a link to the blog post. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 4 '13 at 23:37

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