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On PETA and Linguistics

Into the category "Why didn’t I think of that?" I must put PETAs campaign (for lack of a better word) to get The Associated Press to recognize that nonhuman animals are living beings by transitioning from calling them "it" and "which," to "he," "she," and "who."

Though I am conscious of pronoun usage  and other language in my own writing and I often deconstruct the writing of others, I never thought of going to the source to get language changed: style guides. If you’re not a writer or editor, or if it’s been a while since you had to write a report in school, you might not be aware that there’s a handful of style guides that regulate:

  • how (or if) you’re supposed to punctuate bullets
  • how to refer to a source within your text (as opposed to in a bibliography or footnote)
  • when to capitalize what words and why
  • and thousands upon thousands of other tidbits

The style guide you use depends on your field of endeavor, with print journalism being governed by the The Associated Press Stylebook. I usually write according to The Chicago Manual of Style, which governs the publishing and research communities. When I was in graduate school, I usually used the MLA (Modern Language Assocation) Style Manual, which governs scholarly publishing, but I also used the APA (American Psychological Association) Publication Manual, which governs the social and behavioral sciences. I never chose myself; I was told which style guide to use for my writing and I had to master a handful.

I attempt to raise awareness about language usage in this blog and in my personal activism and writing, but it’s genius to go to the source–the style guide(s)–to request a change. Here’s the PETA letter, in its entirety:

Norm Goldstein, Editor
The Associated Press
450 W. 33rd St.
New York, NY 10001

Dear Mr. Goldstein:

On behalf of PETA’s more than 1.6 million members and supporters worldwide, I am writing to request that you revise The Associated Press Stylebook so that its grammatical rules reflect the fact that animals are living beings rather than inanimate objects. In magazine articles, popular literature, and advertising, writers are using “he,” “she,” and “who” to refer to animals—instead of the outdated and inaccurate “it” and “which.” Won’t you consider making this transition as well?

As “the essential global news network,” the Associated Press (AP) should take a progressive step and give animals the respect that they deserve by revising AP style guidelines to reflect the usage of personal pronouns for all animals.

While the world accelerates through the 21st century, progressive ideas are challenging and changing conventional perspectives. Recently, the American legal system recognized that nonhuman animals deserve legal status beyond that of mere “property” and that abusive treatment of animals is more than simple vandalism.

The public now recognizes that whales, who sing across oceans; great apes, who share more than 98 percent of our DNA; sheep, who can recognize as many as 50 faces after not having seen them for two years; and pigs and chickens, who can learn to operate switches in order to control heat and light in factory-farm sheds, are feeling, intelligent individuals—not objects. Our language should reflect this.

I would greatly appreciate hearing your decision on this matter. Enclosed are PETA’s Writing Style and Guidelines, which explain how to avoid language that portrays animals in a negative light.
Thank you very much for your time.


Anna West
Director of Written Communications

I like this idea so much that I’m going to send one of my own. And then I’m going to take on the other style guides. Arbiters of style will eventually go where the public sends them in many cases. Watch your language, diplomatically alert others of language missteps, and write your own letters requesting changes in the way we refer to nonhuman animals. Language affects behavior.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow, that's smart. I'll have to share this with my roommate (she's a technical writer).

    April 29, 2007
  2. Cláudio Godoy #

    That's a great initiative, but I see something very problematic in this PETA's letter. It seems the author tries to justify that nonhumans deserve respect because they are MORE LIKE US in terms of cognitive abilities. For a true animal rights perspective, just sentience is enough for a living being to be considered as a right's holder. This kind of justification is something as offensive as saying:"Yes, he is black but he has a Ph.D., so he deserves respect".

    April 29, 2007
  3. Mike Grieco #

    Thank you to PETA for urging the Associated Press to come out from their 17th century writing when refering to "Nonhuman Animals".
    Animals "Breathe and Bleed" like humans and I believe Animals are just as sensitive as you and I,and this needs to be shown in the way we communicate when refering to the "Nonhuman Species".
    Nonhumans deserve to be "Respected",("Sentience Beings" should be enough to show Respect for all Life) as the above comment indicated,thanks!
    Thank you again Mary for helping us all learn to be better "Humans" for the "Nonhuman" creatures.

    April 29, 2007
  4. Thanks for taking this on, Mary!

    April 29, 2007
  5. There is a school of thought within animal advocacy that urges us to refer to animals by gendered pronouns, the rationale being that the term “it” implies inanimate status, or thinghood. Perhaps we need, ultimately, to embrace a different idea altogether — one that brings ourselves closer to the inclusive “it” rather than the other way round. Sorting and identifying an animal by sex is not always possible or sensible, and yet again it sets standards that fit humans, whereas numerous beings within the great sphere of evidently conscious animals are able to reproduce themselves without binary sex, and some, biologists tell us, switch sexes during the course of their lives.

    And the whole idea might limit human speech about each other as well. Monique Wittig said a writer “occupies a mental space in which sex is not the determining factor. It's absolutely necessary to have the freedom of that mental space to work in. Language allows it; it's a matter of constructing an ideal neutrality that is liberated from sexual definitions.”

    April 30, 2007
  6. Claudio,
    I understand and agree. However, I'd imagine the job of the communications specialist at PETA is to get the other party to do what you want/react the way you want. To go to the rights perspective might not have done that. Perhaps this is a case of creating the type of message your receiver will hear and be receptive to, rather than creating the message YOU really want to send. This might be considered intellectual dishonesty, but many PETA campaigns are conducted this way (they say they want X–and they do–but they really want Y and they think X is more palatable). I suggest writing your own letter–like I did–from a true rights perspective!

    April 30, 2007
  7. Lee,
    Perhaps the ultimate goal is neutrality liberated from sexual definition. However, gender labeling has a powerful effect when it comes to referring to nonhuman animals: it reminds us that they are like us and are alive. For some people, it's precisely the other-ness of nonhuman animals that creates the environment for using them. Furthermore, usually, we pick a gender (or go back and forth) when we write a book so as to NOT relegate people to inanimate status. Why not do the same for nonhuman animals? It's not a perfect solution, but I think it does make people think when you refer to nonhuman animals with he or she.

    April 30, 2007

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