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Q: Personifying non-objects ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Question  
Subject: Personifying non-objects
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: vigilare-ga
List Price: $2.00
Posted: 07 Nov 2002 08:44 PST
Expires: 07 Dec 2002 08:44 PST
Question ID: 101213
Is it valid to personify non-objects in the English language?

For example, I was writing "... I'm deliberately leaving next week's
evenings open for ...".  So, basically I personified a "week" and
transferred ownership of evenings to that week, thus the 's.

I changed it to something else, but it made me wonder if there are any
rules on personifying non-objects in English.

Thoughts?
Answer  
Subject: Re: Personifying non-objects
Answered By: wayga-ga on 07 Nov 2002 09:40 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
 
Hi, vigilare-ga

Thanks so much for your question. 

Yes, it is perfectly correct to personify objects.

According to The New Fowler's Modern English Usage...

"Personification arises partly as a natural or rhetorical phenomenon
and partly as a result of the loss of grammatical gender at the end of
the Anglo-Saxon period. In Old English a pronoun used in place of a
masculine noun was invariably he, in place of a feminine noun heo ( =
she), and in place of a neuter noun hit ( = it). When the system broke
up and the old grammatical cases disappeared, the obvious result was
the narrowing down of he to refer only to a male person or animal, she
to a female person or animal, and it to nearly all remaining nouns. At
the point of loss of grammatical gender, however, he began to be
applied 'illogically' to some things personified as masculine
(mountains, rivers, oak-trees, etc., as the Oxford English Dictionary
has it), and she to some things personified as feminine (ships, boats,
carriages, utensils, etc.). For example, the Oxford English Dictionary
cites examples of he used of the world (14c.), the philosopher's stone
(14c.), a fire (15c.), an argument (15c.), the sun (16c.), etc.; and
examples of she used of a ship (14c.), a door (14c.), a fire (16c.), a
cannon (17c.), a kettle (19c.), and so on. At the present time such
personification is comparatively rare, but examples can still be
found: e.g. Great Britain is renowned for her stiff upper lip approach
to adversity; I bought that yacht last year: she rides the water
beautifully; (in Australia and NZ) she's right; she's jake; she's a
big country, etc.

Personification has long been used as a literary device, especially in
poetry: e.g.

 Ay, in the very temple of delight
 Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine.
(Keats, 1819)

In the ordinary language, personified uses of words are widespread and
so familiar that they pass virtually unnoticed. Proverbs are fertile
territory for such uses (Brevity is the soul of wit; the wish is
father to the thought); and such ordinary metaphors as the heart of
the matter, the mouth of the river, and to eat one's words are used
all the time."

 
The New Fowler's Modern English Usage,  Oxford University Press 1968

Whew, that's a mouthful! For a more condensed version we'll turn to
The Columbia Guide to Standard American English...
 
PERSONIFICATION   
is a figure of speech wherein an idea, an object, or some other
inanimate entity is represented as though it were a person: Then
Lechery appeared, leering and making lewd gestures toward his
audience.

The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Copyright  1993
Columbia University Press.

Search strategy: "english usage" personification
://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&q=%22english+usage%22+personification

Great Grammer Links

Bartleby.com offers many dictionaries and usage guides.
http://www.bartleby.com/reference/

xreferplus is a giant online reference library that provides you with
access to 120 reference books. xreferplus includes encyclopedias,
dictionaries, thesauri and books of quotations, not to mention a range
of subject-specific titles covering everything from art to accountancy
and literature to law.
http://www.xrefer.com/search.jsp

So go ahead and personify to your heart's content. Which personifies
"heart!"

If you need further information or clarification please let me know.

wayga-ga
vigilare-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $2.00
Wow, that was far more than I was expecting.  Thanks!

Comments  
Subject: Re: Personifying non-objects
From: carnegie-ga on 07 Nov 2002 18:21 PST
 
Dear Vigilare,

I'm very pleased for you - and for Wayga! - that you are so happy with
his/her answer, but I'm afraid it doesn't describe your example
construction.

Personification, as Fowler and his revisers make clear, is granting an
inanimate object or concept personal status by two means: (1) the use
to refer to it of a masculine or feminine (rather than neuter)
pronoun, and (2) in literary or poetic contexts, also granting it an
initial capital.  But you don't personify something simply by granting
it possession of something else: ownership is not restricted solely to
humans.

If I wish to talk about the rainfall today, I can refer to it as "the
rainfall today", or "the rainfall of today", or simply "today's
rainfall".  But I don't personify "today" simply by allowing it to
possess its own rainfall.  If, perhaps, you are American, would you
say that "the dawn's early light", "the twilight's last gleaming", and
"the rockets' red glare" personify "the dawn", "the twilight", and
"the rockets"?  I trust not.  If these ideas were personified in such
verse, of course, they would be given initial capitals anyway.

In fact, if personification were required to allow non-humans to
possess, there would be no use at all for the possessive pronoun
"its": any possession by a necessarily personified inanimate object or
concept would then require "his" or "her".

The answer answers what you asked about personification, but doesn't
help you with "next week's evenings", which is perfectly OK, but
doesn't involve personification.

I trust this helps.

Carnegie

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