Usage and Grammar

Q. Can we now use the pronoun “who” in reference to animals and things? If so, is this black and white or are there guidelines to follow? Surely, we cannot say, “The vase who was given to me by May,” right? In the 15th edition, the rule was clear: “Who refers only to a person.” However, in the 16th edition, it is now rephrased: “Who . . . normally refers to a person.” We checked Merriam-Webster as well, and true enough, they also said that “who” can be used in reference to animals and things.

A. Not much in language usage is black and white. You wouldn’t use “who” with a vase, but you might with a talking bird, or a committee, or a spirit, or a source. CMOS 15 was a little too strict in its prohibition; starting with the 16th edition, we’ve rectified that.