He, She or It? Master Gender in English with This All-in-one Guide
How many times have you heard that English nouns have no gender?
How many times have you been lied to, then?
Your teacher may have told you this just to make things easier for you. Or maybe they were just trying to make things easier for them.
Usually, when we think of gender in English, we think of girls and boys, or men and women.
But the truth is that English nouns can indeed have gender, and we’re going to learn everything about it.
But first, let’s answer one question: why is gender important?
It would be impossible to answer this question in full in this kind of post, but the short answer would be that gender is important because it lets us categorize nouns and divide them into different groups.
I agree that when we refer to objects, gender may not be super important, especially in English. At the end of the day, we don’t really care if the word spoon is a he or a she, we just use it.
But when it comes to animals, and especially people, having a category such as gender can be very useful.
Let me show me why.
What Is Gender in English?
So, gender. What’s gender?
Simply put, gender is a category of the noun that tells us if the noun is masculine, feminine or neuter (among others).
You may already know another category of the noun: number (singular and plural).
If your native language distinguishes gender, you’ll have no problem understanding this concept.
Females are normally feminine, males are masculine and, if your language has a third gender, you’ll have neuter people.
The problem starts when we want to talk about objects.
In Spanish, for example, la silla (the chair) is feminine, but in Polish, krzesło (the chair) is neuter. There’s no way of predicting the gender of a noun because it’s not the same in every language!
When it comes to English, many native speakers aren’t even aware that it uses gender.
But as you’ll see later on, people, animals and even objects can have a specific gender, so you better forget about all those times you’ve heard nouns are genderless in this language.
He, She or It? Master Gender in English with This All-in-one Guide
4 Types of Gender in English and What You Need to Know
Gender is a broad concept. For some people, gender only exists when they’re talking about people and animals. For others, objects can also have gender.
To put a little bit of order in all this mess, let’s first learn about the main types of gender.
Biological or natural gender refers to nouns in which a specific gender is expected because of their biological or relevant (important) characteristics.
For example, the word man will normally refer to males of the human species, so it will be treated as a masculine noun. This means that any pronoun or adjective referring to it will also be masculine:
The man is intelligent. His son is also very clever.
If you are talking about that man, I don’t like him either. He seems to be very irresponsible.
The same happens with words like woman.
A woman is normally considered a female, so this noun will be treated as a feminine one. The pronouns and adjectives modifying it will also be feminine:
The woman and her dog went for a walk.
That woman doesn’t know what she’s saying!
Grammatical gender is basically a system that grammar uses to categorize nouns.
Many languages in the world have two or three grammatical genders (which we normally call masculine, feminine and neuter).
Grammatical and biological gender don’t always agree, but this shouldn’t be a problem for us now.
This type of gender is what makes nouns agree with their modifying pronouns, adjectives and determiners.
This isn’t very obvious in English because the majority of words don’t change with gender.
However, we can still see grammatical gender (together with biological gender) in English in pairs of words that have two different forms (actor/actress, bull/cow), as well as in the third person singular pronouns he, she and it.
There was a time, though, when English was a completely gendered language, and it was beautiful.
For example, Old English had three words to say the, depending on the gender of the noun.
So it had se for the masculine, seo for the feminine and þæt (which sounded very similar to today’s that) for the neuter.
If this had survived till today, we’d probably be saying things like se man (the man), seo woman (the woman) and þæt ship (the ship)—surprisingly, ships were neuter in Old English, but that’s a story for another day.
Metaphorical gender is mainly used when we apply a specific gender to objects, animals and abstract concepts.
As you’ll see throughout this post, most animals are referred to as it, ships are normally considered feminine and the Sun is traditionally considered masculine, just to give you a couple of examples.
Metaphorical gender doesn’t necessarily coincide with biological or grammatical gender.
This is especially true when we’re talking about objects, which don’t normally have a biological gender, unless we’re watching a movie for kids.
The clock was very surprised. He was all by himself, and he didn’t know what to do.
Gender of common nouns
I’ve already mentioned that there are normally two or three genders in every language. Aunts will always be feminine, grandpas will always be masculine and objects will normally be neuter (it).
Surprisingly, though, there’s a fourth gender in English—the common gender or, the gender of common nouns.
This isn’t really a separate gender, but I love the idea.
There are many words in English that group both feminine and masculine beings together or can refer to either a male or a female.
Some examples can be person/people, kid/kids, child/children, parent/parents and dog/dogs. And there are a lot more of them!
When we use these words, we can be referring to either only males, only females or both males and females. Any word that can do this is a common noun.
We don’t really see this until we have a situation in which we have to refer back to that noun with a pronoun. For example:
The teacher was very happy. He/She started to cry.
I bought this for your kid. He/She will love it.
When your patient has a question, make sure he/she/they get(s) the appropriate answer.
As you can see in the last sentence, it’s common to refer back to a common noun with they, even if it’s singular! This allows us to be gender-neutral when we use English.
People and Their Gender in English
When it comes to people and their gender, biological gender is normally the one that determines the gender of the noun.
There are different ways in which English makes the distinction between males and females. The following are the most commonly used ones.
Nouns that change with gender
It’s very common to see nouns referring to people that have one form for the masculine and a different one for the feminine.
In other words, some words—like “boy”—change depending on the gender of the person you’re talking about. So if you’re referring to a male child, you’d say “boy,” but if the child is female, you’d say “girl.”
Let’s look at a few more examples:
Children and their gender
The words child/children and kid/kids are gender-neutral.
They can be used to refer to both boys and girls, and there’s no way of guessing who they’re referring to unless a pronoun, a proper name or any similar kind of information is added.
For example, the sentence “The child is very intelligent” can describe both a boy and a girl if we don’t have any context.
It can all get solved very easily by adding a pronoun in the next sentence, though. For example:
The child is very intelligent. She has been reading about grammar all morning.
When we don’t know the gender of a child, or we’re talking about children in general (even if we use the singular forms child and kid), we normally use they/them/their/themselves:
Take care of your kid and keep an eye on them at all times.
Although child/children/kid/kids are gender-neutral, avoid using the personal pronoun it when referring to them. It sounds rude to use this pronoun for people.
For example, try not to say something like this:
The child is asleep. It just ate breakfast and went back to bed.
The -man/-woman technique
There are many words in English that distinguish between males and females by adding the endings -man or -woman to the noun.
In order to form the plural, just replace -man with -men and –woman with -women:
The suffix -ess
Another method English uses to distinguish men and women is by adding the suffix -ess to the masculine form.
In most cases, –ess makes a noun female. For example:
steward/stewardess (These two words are normally replaced by the gender-neutral term flight attendant.)
English has plenty of nouns that refer to both males and females. Some people call this type of words neuter (like our child above), but grammatically speaking, they should be considered common nouns.
There are a lot of words (especially names of professions and occupations) that fall into this category of nouns:
There’s no way of knowing if these nouns are referring to a male or a female if we don’t have any context. In order to find out, you normally have to look at other parts of the sentence.
For example, in this sentence, the pronoun she tells us that the teenager is female:
The teenager was very happy because she got what she wanted. Her dad bought her a car.
Jobs and their traditional gender
Some jobs are still strongly related to either males or females, and you can see this by their titles (names).
This normally happens because, historically, these jobs have been performed by people of a specific gender.
Fortunately, times are changing. For example, no one is surprised to see a male nurse nowadays.
However, language tends to be a little bit behind society, and there are still some jobs that are commonly thought of as mainly masculine or feminine:
bus driver (masculine)
taxi driver (masculine)
Stereotypes aren’t always a good thing, and this is a great example of that.
In order to be gender-specific when referring to these jobs, we normally add male or female in front of the noun accordingly:
female bus driver
female taxi driver
Animals and Their Gender in English
Animals can also be gendered in English. Most of them have the same male-female duality we find in humans, but the rules are a little different. Let’s have a look.
From neutrality to endearment
As a rule, animals are referred to as it, and this is especially true when it comes to animals that aren’t as important in our daily lives.
For example, can you imagine someone referring to a mosquito as he or she?
I see a mosquito! She is going to bite me!
It just sounds as weird as saying you’ll “be a monkey’s uncle.”
Many English grammar books say that the gender of animals is neutral, which is why we use the pronoun it. These books admit there are exceptions, but in general, they treat animals as gender-neutral.
The problem comes when you have a pet.
We know already that referring to a person as it isn’t very nice, so why would you do that to your pet?
English found a solution to this: if we love an animal, we can refer to them as he or she, and we can use any pronouns or adjectives that go with them.
This is why you’ll hear things like:
My dog is amazing. She is so smart!
Our cat has his own bed.
Notice how the same animal is referred to as it if they aren’t as “loved” or they aren’t pets:
There’s a dog there. It must be hungry.
That cat is scary. It looks mad.
So, excluding the exceptions you’ll see in the next section, use it for animals whose gender you don’t know, animals you don’t have feelings for and smaller animals like insects.
On the other hand, use he and she when you love an animal or you don’t consider it to be a less important one.
Animals with two or more forms
We’ve already talked about how we can add male or female in front of a person to be gender-specific.
This can also be done with animals, especially if they don’t have different words for the male and the female:
I just bought a male frog.
Female mosquitoes bite humans and animals.
Sometimes, we have two different words for male and female, but they aren’t commonly used or widely known. In these cases, the male/female distinction can also be used:
That’s a male crocodile. (A male crocodile is called a bull, but who even knows that?)
My dad has a female donkey. (A female donkey is called a jenny, but no one uses that word.)
But apart from the animals we almost never refer to by using two different words, there are actually a lot of them that have two official, commonly-used forms, one for the masculine and one for the female.
Bear in mind that in some cases, the gender-neutral word used to refer to the whole group is a third, different noun (like horse).
Other times, the whole group is referred to with the male form (lion) and, in very few cases, the feminine is used for the whole group (duck):
duck: drake/duck or hen
goose: gander/goose (also female goose)
It’s important to note that the words cock and bitch must be used with caution. Native speakers almost never use them, because they’re also used as cuss words (bad words used to insult people).
But by all means, if you’re curious, you can learn more about them when you finish reading this post. You know what they say, “fluency is fluency.”
Inanimate Nouns and Their Gender in English
The group of inanimate nouns is undoubtedly (without a doubt) the easiest one to learn because objects have no biological gender and, consequently (as a result), should all be neuter in English.
I could tell you that every time you have to talk about an inanimate noun, you should use it and call it a day (decide to stop):
The table is new. It is very expensive.
My dad showed me his newest coffee machine. Have you seen it?
Anna had left her phone at home, so when it started ringing, she wasn’t able to answer it.
But inanimate nouns aren’t always neuter.
There are a couple of them that are referred to as he or she, even though they’re obviously inanimate and sex-less.
Tradition as well as historical and linguistic reasons have made these nouns maintain or acquire (obtain) a specific gender.
You don’t need to worry about these reasons, just remember that the following two lists of nouns are special:
Inanimate nouns that are traditionally considered masculine
knives (and small tools in general)
Inanimate nouns that are traditionally considered feminine
vehicles (including ships, cars and even trains)
luck (Lady Luck)
the Earth (Mother Earth)
countries and nations
nature (Mother Nature)
We already talked about personification in the post.
When we transfer human qualities to an inanimate noun (for example when we see clocks talking or walking), we’re using personification.
Personification allows us to use he and she with objects, depending on the qualities those objects have.
So, if our talking clock has a mustache and is dressed like a soldier, we assume it’s a “male talking clock,” and we’ll refer to it as he:
The clock was so happy. He had been waiting for his friends for hours.
Another example of personification is thinking about the Earth and the Moon as females, but the Sun as masculine.
Think about it for a second. If you imagine a smiling Sun, do you see a male Sun or a female one? Most probably a male one.
A similar thing happens with certain abstract concepts. For some reason, they’ve traditionally been represented as males or females, and we keep on doing the same.
This would explain why when you think about the words luck or fortune, you imagine a woman, but when you try to draw winter as a person, you’ll almost always end up drawing a man.
As you can see, English nouns can certainly have gender, and even though native speakers don’t normally think about it, it’s important for us language learners to take these rules into account.
People, animals and even objects or concepts can have a specific gender in English, and that’s a fact no one can deny.
Next time you hear someone say English is a genderless language, show them this post. Maybe you’ll help a native speaker learn something new about their own language!