Like People but Not People?

Personifying vs. Anthropomorphizing

IF you have trouble distinguishing between a talking dog and a tree described as having "wrinkles", it's understandable.

Sometimes a novel or other fiction piece will have some object seem like it's human with phrases like I just gave and you sit there wondering if the author intended for you to imagine that that tree thinks and feels exactly like an old person. When you read another story, you may encounter three peacocks that link their wings together and do the can-can in front of an audience of portly blue-collar workers....or something like that.

And then you may have already heard your teacher or professor, or some comprehensive literary terms site explain how they're actually different. You may still see that since personification and anthropomorphization have instances of nonhumans doing human things, they really don't have any difference that really matters.

However, here's what I will say succinctly that personification and anthropomorphization:

1. work on two separate types of knowledge

2. have different purposes towards higher purposes

3. have different limits


Definition: an inanimate object displays characteristics or behavior that make it seem alive, self-aware, or conscious

The point of giving an unconscious object an experience exclusive to conscious beings is to use that thing to create an overall mood or build a unique perspective for the reader to become familiar with. A writer uses personification to either (or both): create a single impression of the setting, character, or an object or show how a character makes comparisons to understand or interpret their environment in real-time. In other words, the goal is to develop a particular emotional setting. Personifications are constructions to display general things like youth, beauty, fear, etc., and act as descriptive building blocks but they aren't actually characters that move and think in the world.

Every single plant, human and animal experiences death and pain. Let's go back to my tree example. If a writer says that the tree "groaned underneath its folds of aged skins", they are using a metaphor - a comparison without the words "like" or "as" - to describe the tree as very old. The word "groan" relays pain as if the tree is bending under a weight - the weight of old age. Presumably, the tree is about to break and figuratively die. This one description can be a part of several other similar similes, metaphors, and personifications that are connected to set up a running theme of decay and the fear of death.

"Cliffs that Exhale" ; "Exhaling Cliffs"; "The cliffs exhaled their content into the dawn land."


Definition: an animal or inanimate object displays characteristics or behaviors that humans usually have

Writers -really anyone - anthropomorphizes when they want to an animal or inanimate object to be characters in a story that gives valuable and complicated information in a more direct, quick and simplistic way. Rather than trying to express a feeling or mood of determination, the writer makes a nutcracker become an actual soldier who travels down drains to find love and their own identity. You can find them in a few everyday sayings or proverbs, some parables, fables, and long allegories. As such, anthropomorphizing is also in many stories geared towards children or people not living in the same social group.

Anthropomorphizations work from a specific people's religious/cultural/historical knowledge about general behaviors or traits. Every society, social group, and/or culture has its own set of interpretations of arrogance for its individuals to process and learn.

English speakers for example grow up with the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. (Hares are related to rabbits.) In the tale, the hare is bold and fast, but about brags about the superiority he believes his speed gives him over others. The tortoise is slow, quiet and usually just says they will do their best. The hare not only represents arrogance--he IS arrogance. In contrast, the tortoise IS humility.

The tale, depending on what specifics you've noticed and put together, is a lesson in productivity or self-awareness. The fable specifically warns its audience that either: being fast doesn't complete a job, or being too confident in our ability to suceed without really paying attention to the extent and strength of our abilities will lead to absolute failure.

The Tortoise and the Hare: The Allegory/Fable

To Summarize

I will leave an even more succinct note: to personify is more about expression while to anthropomorphize is to aid in teaching. The first has a wide range of uses, while the second only creates characters out of ideas. Personifications only figuratively make humans of things while anthropomorphizations make people out of recognized nonpeople. And finally, personifications are tools to describe something else in the bigger message while anthropomorphizations are tools in the larger purpose of creating a compact example of a lesson.

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