Can inanimate objects own or do things?August 18, 2009
Can an inanimate object own something (and therefore take the possessive form)? Can it do something?
This question has been perplexing me for a while — I’m working on a project and others on the project are stating things like “The XYZ Project will submit an annual report to government…” in the documents they’re writing. As editor, I’m picking them up on it as it is my understanding that only companies (inanimate but full of people, which are animate), roles (occupied by animate objects), and named individuals — among others — could ‘do’ something, not inanimate things like a Project.
According to the Chicago Manual of Style:
- Inanimate objects can take a possessive (e.g. the table’s legs, the vehicle’s speed) (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/PossessivesandAttributives/PossessivesandAttributives02.html)
- Inanimate objects can do some things, but not others (e.g. ‘this document analyzes the hazards’, but NOT ‘this document orders a pizza’) (http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/Usage/Usage54.html)
Grammar Girl has these things to say on related topics:
- Collective nouns (and the use of singular/plural, prepositional phrases): http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/collective-nouns.aspx
- People versus Entities: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-who-that.aspx
I couldn’t find anything relevant in the Australian Style Manual, but that’s because there were no relevant index entries that matched the terms I searched for.
The final word on the subject should go to John S who answered my question with a large dose of reality:
There’s a place for technical precision, and this may not be it.
Your example seems to me to be one of those useful wiggle-words. Someone has to write the report. It’s a Big Deal and we’re not sure who will do it, but someone will do it. Uncle Sam doesn’t care who does it as long as it gets filed. For today, that statement lets the people in the project move forward.
You should remind the appropriate actors that the submission of the report hasn’t actually been assigned to someone. If they “Yes, we know, because we don’t know yet” then let it go. If they say “Oh gosh, that’s right! Joe will be responsible for that” then you can move forward (although I’d recommend using the title rather than the name, in case Joe wins the lottery and moves to a South Sea island…)
Thanks John! I’ll try not to be too pedantic about it any more!
Of course, if anyone has any style guide references or websites they can quote to add to this topic, feel free to add them to the Comments.