Grammar Inanimate Object |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Inanimate Object

American English can be flexible and expressive in conveying thoughts and ideas. For example, we might write or say something such as that guitar has been lounging in my living-room corner since Reagan was president.

Many of us may understand what that sentence conveys, but some of us might also ask ourselves if a guitar can lounge. What exactly do we have here? Let’s discuss that.

What Does an Inanimate Object Mean?

An inanimate object is a thing that is not living or that does not move on its own, such as a rock, a stapler, or a hairbrush (or a guitar). With language, we can make an inanimate object come to life through personification.

Personification is the attribution of human nature or character to something nonhuman, inanimate, or abstract. It is the device that allows us to assign a human action (lounging) to an inanimate object (guitar).

In addition to that example, we might hear personification of an inanimate object expressed in ways such as:

I think my boots walked away when I wasn’t looking.

The falling feather etched an elegant script in the air with its descent.

The tumbleweed danced with delight across the barren terrain.

In each of these sentences, we are giving human characteristics to an inanimate (inhuman) object.

With perhaps a bit less creative license, we also commonly personify inanimate objects with statements such as the river runs south and the staircase rises to the third floor.

Inanimate Object: What Are Personification’s Limits?

Sometimes a question can surface about the liberty taken in a sentence such as Maria’s promotion has often been encouraged by her manager.

While many of us may understand what is being expressed, those who are highly attuned to precision might challenge whether a promotion, which is an inanimate concept, can be encouraged. If a promotion is not sentient, would it respond to another person’s motivation?

Reason could argue no (personification!). People who see language as creatively pliable could say yes.

Another example might be that plate was inspired by 19th century Spanish art. Can a plate be inspired—by another inanimate object?

You may have noted that both examples are in the passive voice. Let’s put them in the active voice and see if that makes a difference:

Maria’s manager has often encouraged her promotion.

Nineteenth century Spanish art inspired that plate.

In the first sentence, we now have a person performing a human action, but the inanimate concept still receives it. In the second sentence, we still have an inanimate object acting in a human way upon another inanimate object.

If you are ever unsure about whether something you’ve personified can be read with proper suspension of doubt, simply try modifying some of the sentence elements:

Maria’s manager has often encouraged her being promoted.

The plate’s maker found inspiration for it by looking at 19th century Spanish art.

Inanimate Object with Whose

Another question that can surface with inanimate objects is whether they can be used with the pronoun whose. For some, a sentence such as the following might be awkward:

I love to play that guitar, whose strings always fancy the whims of my imagining fingers.

Some people might pause at such a sentence because they think of whose as a possessive pronoun for animate objects (people and animals) only:

I am going to visit Jose, whose guitar always fancies the whims of my imagining fingers.

There is the dog whose gait is so regal.

By definition, whose is the possessive form of both who and which, meaning it can refer to both animate and inanimate objects.

The man whose ways aren’t bad should make at least a few people glad.

That is the sewing machine whose needle has served for close to a century.

Pop Quiz

Identify any instances of personification of an inanimate object in the following sentences.

1. Are you trying to tell me that paper just flew away?

2. That cage is the right size for the guinea pig.

3. The fountain outside my window whispered to me throughout the night.

4. That designer suit hugs you in all the right places.

5. This pen has no ink.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Are you trying to tell me that paper just flew away?

2. That cage is the right size for the guinea pig. no personification

3. The fountain outside my window whispered to me throughout the night.

4. That suit hugs you in all the right places.

5. This pen has no ink. no personification

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

One response to “Inanimate Object”

  1. Steven Rosenberg says:

    William Safire once handled this subject when he saw a sign that read “This Door is Alarmed.”

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