9

Although it has been already discussed:

The word “who” only refers to living beings. For non-living beings, “which” is used instead.

I just wonder if "who" could be used for not living characters in a story, to put emphasis on their role:

This is the story of a wooden puppet who had a friend

I'd be glad to hear your opinion on that,

Thanks

4
  • 9
    I'm not sure where the first quote comes from but it's not at all true. For example, "Winston Churchill, who died more than 50 years ago, ..." Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 12:00
  • @DavidRicherby but winston churchil had been a living being, whereas a table has never been a living being, and never will.
    – WendyG
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 12:36
  • 8
    the wooden puppet must be alive and sentient to have a friend.
    – WendyG
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 12:36
  • 6
    'Who' might be a clue to the contents of the story, by choosing 'who' instead of 'which', you're giving a clue that the puppet has person-hood. Whether it's given by a child who likes to think of it as alive, or some kind of autonomous ability or thought. Because, you know, it's a story.
    – AJFaraday
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 14:01

3 Answers 3

24

If the puppet is actually a "character" with a "friend", as you say, then the story will normally treat it as animate, including by using animate pronouns: "he" or "she" rather than "it", "who(m)" rather than "which", etc.

2
  • great answer. I was about to write something similar. Though your answer is more elaborate. :)
    – Kshitij
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 7:24
  • Thanks for your answer. Actually if the puppet was going to be animated (Pinocchio alike) I'd put my money on who. But in this case I was sort of puzzled by it ;-)
    – Carla
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 7:45
15

I disagree with the first quote in the question.

Who isn't used to ask for a living being, it is used to ask for a person.

  • A living person is a person. "Who is the current president of the United States?"
  • A dead person is a person. "Who was the first president of the United States?"
  • An organization consists of people and might sometimes be considered a person in the legal sense, but not in a grammatical sense. "Which company made your car?"
  • An animal is a living being, but it is not a person. "Which horse do you want to ride on?".
  • But an animal can be persons when they are anthropomorised to a degree that they gain human-like personality traits. "Who is your favorite My Little Pony?"
  • An inanimate object isn't a person. "Which one is your car?"
  • But just like an animal, an object can be anthropomorised to a degree that it can be considered a person. "Who is the main character of the animated movie Cars?"

So when the wooden puppet in your story has a human-like personality, thinks like a person, acts like a person and interacts with other people like a person, then it is a person and you can ask for it using who.

3
  • 5
    I find myself disagreeing with several of your examples using which, since they also specify a noun to go with them. I feel like "Who made your car?" is a perfectly valid question when leaving the company off. Similarly, using which with your second example and saying "Which person was the first president of the United States?" also feels correct. Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 19:37
  • 3
    @ChrisAllwein "which person" is different, as there's no personal pronoun that can be used when asking for a selection from a set. You wouldn't say "What was the first President?". But this also points out that "which horse" is not a good example, either; it would be fine to say "Who do you want to ride?" (we give names to horses, anthropomorphising them).
    – Barmar
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 19:43
  • 5
    The dichotomy isn't really between who and this kind of which. We can perfectly well use which for people: Which designer made your dress? Which child is your daughter? etc. In fact, your which constructions cannot ever use who: Who jockey do you want to ride your horse? would just be wrong. You want the "which" that is used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses (Horses, which are large herbivores, are often used for racing vs Children, who are small humans, are often misunderstood) or else questions introduced by what (Who is that? vs What is that?).
    – 1006a
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 4:20
6

There are many cases in literature, film and folk tradition such as Pinocchio, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars and even HAL from 2001 a Space Oddyssy where inanimate (or at least robotic) characters are anthropomorphized or given human characteristics. The same applies to non-human characters like Peter Rabbit, Napoleon the pig from Animal Farm and Anansi. As these characters are given human characteristics it is acceptable to refer to them using personal pronouns which would not be used if they had not been anthropomorphized. The reason for the use of anthropomorphism is, almost universally, to make us think about some aspect of the human condition so, in one sense, the characters are human, not inanimate or animal at all which makes the personal pronouns acceptable.

2
  • 1
    If you had two real pets named Fido the dog and Sylvester the cat, plus two stuffed teddy bears named Yogi and Smokey, you'd use "who" to say that “Fido's the one who wakes you up in the morning with his barking.” I don't really think that counts as "anthropomorphizing" him by using who there. Fido's just your dog. You know he's not a person, but he's not an "it" any longer: he has agency and emotions and reactions and moods, and so he gets to be a "who", too. That is hardly "anthropomorphizing", which is rather more complex than that.
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 3:43
  • @tchrist I'd probably say that too, I didn't intend to say that only anthropomorphized animals could be referred to using 'who', just that anthropomorphized animals (and robots, computers, toys, rivers, mountains and so on) can be referred to in that way. In terms of your analogy would you say that Yogi or Smokey was the one who slept with you? If you did that I would suggest that you were getting very close to anthropomorphizing as teddy bears neither sleep nor wake.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 18:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.