To be, or not to be: A grammatical error

To be, or not to be: A grammatical error

August 20, 2021 By Charita Ray-Blakely, PhD Grammar Usage

Oftentimes, writers assign human behaviors to inanimate objects and subsequently place themselves in a grammatical quandary known as anthropomorphism.

One fundamental task of editing is to promote clarity in content. When used, anthropomorphism can interfere with comprehension and lead to a reader’s inaccurate understanding of content.

Some writers confuse anthropomorphism with personification. Fundamentally, personification is a picture or representation of a nonhuman entity possessing a human trait (“looking” human), and anthropomorphism is a human behavior or act performed by a nonhuman entity (“acting” human).

For example, when using personification, an author may write, “The storm appears angry!” We know a storm is a nonhuman entity, does not possess human emotions, and, therefore, cannot be angry. However, to convey meaning or enhance the reader’s understanding of how strong, meteorologically speaking, the storm is, the author uses personification.

An author may use anthropomorphism by writing, “This poem speaks to me.” Again, a poem is an inanimate object and cannot speak; however, the author uses anthropomorphism to convey meaning and enhance the reader’s understanding of the engaging qualities of the poem.

Consider this sentence from an auto-repair manual as an example of the problem that anthropomorphism can create: “This part will make your car hum!” This sentence suggests that a part will do something when, in fact, the mechanic is using the part to produce a result.

If a reader is a vehicle-repair novice, this statement might lead them to expect a humming noise from their vehicle, as evidence that the part was used correctly. However, for the reader more versed in vehicle repairs, the intent of this statement may be to simply inform them that after the mechanic uses this part, their vehicle will run much better than it did before.

In this example, the latter is the desired understanding. Because this statement may not relate to an actual humming sound, clarity in content is compromised, resulting in a reader’s possible misunderstanding. Anthropomorphism can easily be avoided by ensuring that a human, not an object, is the actor, but in some genres, avoidance may not be the best option for the reader.

Anthropomorphism and personification are legitimate tools for writers and, depending on the context and audience, can enhance or weaken understanding. Anthropomorphism is more widely accepted in the fiction and/or creative writing genres, as writers often use it to bring life to a fictional character or make an object more human-like or relatable. But it is less accepted in other writing genres because it can interfere with clarity.

To promote content clarity, editors and writers can work together to avoid the potential pitfalls created by anthropomorphism. Let humans be human and prevent object metamorphosis.

This article was originally published in Tracking Changes (Spring 2021 edition). Members receive a PDF of the quarterly Tracking Changes newsletter by email.

Header photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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