, Gloucester, MA


May 3, 2013

Communication across species' lines

I was scanning the New York Times Book Review bestseller list to see who got to the top, and although I rarely glance at the listing of children’s books, I was looking for a birthday gift when my eye caught this title: “The One and Only Ivan” (recommended reading for 8- to 12-year-olds). I could hardly ignore serendipitous coincidence; Ivan was also the name of the child for whom I was gift searching.

It happened that this Ivan was a gorilla, not a fourth-grade boy, but no matter. I decided to go for it. I found the book, bought it, and read the first page, then stayed up long into the night to finish its 305 pages in one sitting.

Not wanting the book to end, I continued reading on to the back flap of the jacket to discover that Katherine Applegate’s Ivan was based on the life of a real gorilla who now resides in Georgia’s Zoo Atlanta.

The whole point of this column has just been challenged, as I knew it would be, in the above paragraph. “Spell-check” corrected my use of the pronoun “who” to refer to a gorilla, suggesting instead I use, “that.”

I knew where this was going, but just to confirm, I picked up the dictionary, and it concurred with Spell-check: “who” is a relative pronoun to introduce a clause when the antecedent is understood to be a “human.” Anybody who saw Steven Spielberg’s movie “E.T.” will agree there’s room for interpretation when using the pronoun “who.”

I like to argue semantics, like to split hairs. In this instance, I’ve become my mother. She elevated the animals, fish, and even philodendrons in her life, when she spoke of or to them, to the level of “who.”

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