Enclosed you will find your individual agreement of employment detailing the terms and conditions of your contract.

Rated 5 stars by Time magazine, the hotel overlooks the beautiful Langland Bay.

Why something lifeless can "detail" or "overlook" anything? Is this some kind of "personifying description" ?

Does that mean I could use any present particle(or verbs) which seems appropriate in the "meaning" to describe (or be the actions of) any lifeless things?

For example: "This pen writes perfectly." or "Writing perfectly, this pen is suited for everyone."

If this is not allowed, then is there any particular rules for choosing the combination? Or can only be studied case by case.

  • 2
    "This pen writes perfectly" is absolutely acceptable. The "writing perfectly" variant is off; it seems to imply that the pen is currently writing perfectly (by itself) and that while it's doing so... I'm not exactly sure, but it doesn't sound right. But yeah, you can talk about pretty much any object that way. "The oven preheats nicely." "This car runs smoothly." etc.
    – WendiKidd
    Apr 24, 2014 at 17:57
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    I don't think why is an answerable question here, or anywhere else. As far as I know, this sort of figurative use of language is possible in any language, and the reason why it is done is because it can be. Apr 24, 2014 at 17:57
  • 1
    @WendiKidd I got your point, and I have the same feeling as you for "writing perfectly". I think "detailing" is fine in first sentence since it is actually "always detailing", but the pen is not "always writing". That's where awkwardness happened in "write" but not "detail"
    – CYC
    Apr 24, 2014 at 18:28
  • Sure. The sentence would be better cast: "As it writes perfectly, this pen is suited for everyone."
    – Jay
    Apr 24, 2014 at 20:40
  • 1
    You could say, "Writing perfectly, the pen left a sharp and crisp image on the paper."
    – Jay
    Apr 24, 2014 at 20:41

2 Answers 2


Hmm, I don't see the problem. Of course inanimate objects can do things! For example, "The rock falls to the ground." The rock is doing something: it is falling. It doesn't require intelligence or will to obey the laws of gravity. Or, "The alarm clock made a loud noise." The alarm clock is doing something: making noise. It has mechanical or electronic parts that cause it to do this. Again, it doesn't have to be a living being to make noise.

To take your examples:

"The agreement details the terms and conditions." The agreement presumably contains text, and this text describes or explains the terms and conditions. That's what text does, isn't it? Of course it required a human being to formulate the words, but so what?

"The hotel overlooks Langland Bay." Maybe there's a hint of personification here. Can a building literally "look" at something? I guess that depends on the exact definition of "overlooks". If you define it in terms of height and direction, then yes. If you define it in terms of eyes and seeing, then I guess not, as a building doesn't have eyes.

Of course we do often personify inanimate objects. We might say, "This car doesn't like cold weather" when what we really mean is that it is difficult to start the car in cold weather or that it runs poorly in cold weather. Or, "My computer is sick" when we mean that it is not working properly. Etc.

"This pen writes perfectly." In this case we are using the word "write" to describe the mechanical function of depositing ink on paper. Again, something that an inanimate object is perfectly capable of doing. We might say that a person is writing in this same sense. Like if a teacher says, "The instructions for your homework are on the board. Please write them down so you don't forget", the teacher is instructing the students to perform the mechanical action of copying the text. But if she says, "You are to write a 10-page paper on the history of Ruritania", she probably is using "write" to mean the creative act of putting ideas together, etc. I wouldn't say that a pen can "write" in that sense, of course.

Are you a non-native English speaker trying to learn the language? If so, do you not use similar wording in your native language? How do you express an idea like, "The book fell off the shelf" in your language?

Or are you a native speaker who just suddenly found this un-nerving?

  • 1
    I am a non-native speaker from Taiwan trying to learn English. Yes, we do use similar wording, in fact Chinese is much more imprecise in many ways. I had described what happened to me in the commends below BobRodes's answer. What pops to my mind when I saw first sentence is "a paper with hands writing on itself" very very strange to me and that makes me wonder what can or can not be use.
    – CYC
    Apr 24, 2014 at 20:59
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    Maybe you're just getting tripped up by multiple definitions of a word. Like I tried to say above: "writes" the creative process of composing text versus "writes" the mechanical process of putting ink on paper versus "writes" the act of using a pen. Sure, every now and then I read a sentence and get the wrong definition in my head and its strange or funny. Like "The motor is running": does it have legs? No, we just mean that it is operating. Etc etc.
    – Jay
    Apr 24, 2014 at 21:17

We use this sort of construction so often that I had to think a minute to understand what sounded strange to you. After thinking about it, there is a general guideline that I can suggest, although there are enough exceptions that I wouldn't call it a rule. If an inanimate (a better word than "lifeless" which means dead or lacking in liveliness) object engenders, causes, or supports a particular behavior on the part of a living thing, then it takes on the verb as its own.

A very common example that comes to mind is "look". If a pair of shoes "look good", that means someone looking at them would find them attractive. Another is "say". If I say a book says something, it really means that its writer says it. If a contract details something, it means that the writer of the contract has written down the details of the agreement A car driving well means that its drivers will think that it runs well. A hotel overlooking the bay means that someone can stand in the hotel and look out over the bay.

On the other hand, some verbs get applied in more abstract contexts to the point that they take on meanings that have little similarity to their original meaning. For example, there are approximately 75 definitions for the word "run", and only a few of them mean an animal moving faster than walking and in such a way as to always have all feet off of the ground at some point. The business runs well, for example. However, rivers run, seasons run, nylons run, and mountain ranges run, all without the help of people. So, you will most certainly have to learn different meanings of the word "run". If you would like to get started, have a look at this.

  • 1
    I was absolutely ok with "shoes look good" or "something runs" and never confused a second before, but one day I saw two examples given in the original post, which somehow sounds very weird to me (maybe it is because they are less commonly used in comparison to "look" and "run"), so I meticulously analysed their structure, and suddenly the entire English world become ridiculously wired. Thanks for the help of noticing that it is ok for almost all the combinations with proper meanings(ofcourse there might be some exception), I feel somehow relieved.
    – CYC
    Apr 24, 2014 at 20:37
  • 1
    You're welcome. As it says on the front of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, don't panic. :)
    – BobRodes
    Apr 24, 2014 at 21:58

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