Choosing the Right Type of Subject
When deciding what the subject of your sentence will be, you have three types of nouns from which to choose: creatures, things, and ideas.
- Creatures (e.g., people and animals) are the natural choice for subjects because they can do something.
Example: The committee members convened at 10:00 a.m.
- Things (e.g., inanimate objects and places) can do something, but in many cases they are acted upon.
Example: The projector began smoking.
- Ideas (e.g., abstractions, concepts, and processes) cannot act other than by influencing actions by creatures.. They exist and can be acted upon, but not being physical, they cannot act themselves.
Example: Disagreement with committee decisions is not welcome.
With every sentence, the readers want to know, “Who did what to whom?” This question implies that the subject is able to do something. For this reason, creatures make better subjects than things, and things make better subjects than ideas.
With a subject that can perform an action, and with that action described by the sentence, the sentence will be more interesting and will communicate more clearly. This gives you the opportunity to keep sharing your information. More importantly, the reader will be able to visualize the subject performing the action, increasing both understanding and remembrance.
Anthropomorphism means giving human qualities to non-human or conceptual subjects. Anthropomorphism is inaccurate writing that reflects sloppy thinking. As noted immediately above, choose subjects that have the ability to perform the action.
Anthropomorphism can be weak or strong, as seen in the following two examples.
Example of weak anthropomorphism: The municipal government acted to reduce crime rates.
Example of strong anthropomorphism: The municipal government felt crime rates were too high.
These two examples both reflect sloppy thinking, but some readers may accept the example with weak anthropomorphism. The problem is that government is a concept, not a creature or thing. On the other hand, when policies or laws are created, the government, as a whole, can be described as “acting,” even though the people who compose the government are the true actors. To be more accurate, the first example can be written “Municipal policy-makers acted to reduce crime rates” or “Local officials passed new regulations to reduce crime rates.”
The second example is a bigger problem. Although you could make the case that a company “acts,” you can’t claim that it “feels,” implying emotions. Feeling is truly a human quality, hence anthropomorphism. To correct this example, we ask who is doing the main action, using the answer as the subject. Here, the municipal policy-makers, or officials, are feeling. Thus, we can correct the sentence as seen in the next example.
Example without anthropomorphism: Municipal policy-makers felt the crime rates were too high.
Here is a subtle example of anthropomorphism and its correction:
Example with subtle anthropomorphism: The research study attempted to identify causes of heart disease.
Example without anthropomorphism: In this study, the researchers attempted to identify causes of heart disease.
Notice in these examples that a study is a concept and has neither desires nor goals. It cannot attempt something. However, researchers can, and they make the attempt by conducting their study.
The Main Point
For clear and accurate writing that engages your reader and communicates your message, choose subjects that can perform the action in the sentence. Think carefully about your subjects and choose the right one.