In a sentence that reads, “Align your attention with that maternal star around **** we orbit”, what word would be suitable? I am unsure because “maternal star” adds gender and very nearly attributes personhood to the object of the sentence. I understand that normally you would say “Star around which we orbit*. But is it acceptable to use who of whom given what strikes me as a special case?

Any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

  • Context needed!! What does "maternal star" refer to?
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 19, 2019 at 0:20
  • Maternal star is refering to the central star of a solar system, like our sun; in this context, the speaker is essentially saying that the object is their producer, given that it allows life to exist as they know it. If it helps, you could replace maternal star with primary star, or mother star.
    – Kristian
    Jan 19, 2019 at 0:27
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    To clarify the comment by @HotLicks, if you're referring to an astronomical object then you can only use "which", regardless of the anthropomorphism. If you're referring to a person - whether you mean star as "celebrity" or you're using a fully extended metaphor - then you can only use "who". Context is everything! Jan 19, 2019 at 0:30
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    @Kristian As Chappo said, actual context is needed. It’s still not clear whether whatever it is you’re supposed to align your attention with is in actual fact a human entity or not. If the ‘maternal Star’ we orbit around is, say, love, then who won’t work. If it’s meant to refer to an important person in your life, then it works. Jan 19, 2019 at 1:03

1 Answer 1


You have not “added gender” — let alone sentience, which is all that counts.

Not even maternal instincts, maternal health, maternal contributions, or maternal deaths count as sentient beings who would therefore merit the whole who treatment.

Don’t confuse those abstract notions with Mother Nature herself — lest she decide to let you know just exactly who’s who and who’s not, and how.

Ditto my cats, who won’t appreciate being thrown into the same brain-dead bucket as some overgrown bit of dumb foxfire.

  • It was not gender in a biological or scientific sense, rather it was meant poetically, not unlike the way many words have gender in German. For example “Sonne” (Sun in German) is considered feminine. I did not mean to offend your cats. 🐈 thank you for the response.
    – Kristian
    Jan 19, 2019 at 0:58
  • @Kristian Unlike Old English, Modern English doesn’t have grammatical gender as an intrinsic and somewhat abstract category of words that merely happens to overlap with gendered sentient referents — although German, French, and many other languages certainly do have such. My two tomcats appreciate your kind regard, and it just so happens that they both prefer the pronoun he. :)
    – tchrist
    Jan 19, 2019 at 1:07
  • @Kristian Oh, if this is a poetic metaphor for a real person casting her as it were in the light of a star by way of a rhetorical device, then certainly now you need who and she and her. But that’s because you know who she really is, the way Janus himself observes occurs even in languages with grammatical gender in this comment when you might think it would be something else.
    – tchrist
    Jan 19, 2019 at 1:19
  • I’m aware that English does not, but in poetry sometimes the lines seem to blur (given all the abstraction). Thank you again for the clarification. 🐱🐱👍🏻
    – Kristian
    Jan 19, 2019 at 1:24

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