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Gender in English

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Title: Gender in English  
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Subject: English grammar, Gender neutrality in English, Gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns, English relative clauses, Agreement (linguistics), Personal pronoun
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Gender in English

A system of grammatical gender, whereby every noun was treated as either masculine, feminine or neuter, existed in Old English, but fell out of use during the Middle English period. Modern English retains features relating to natural gender, namely the use of certain nouns and pronouns (such as he and she) to refer specifically to persons or animals of one or other sex, and certain others (such as it) for sexless objects – although feminine pronouns may optionally be used when referring to ships (and analogous machinery) and nation states.

Some aspects of gender usage in English have been influenced by the movement towards a preference for gender-neutral language. This applies in particular to avoidance of the default use of the masculine he when referring to a person of unspecified sex, and avoidance of the use of certain feminine forms of nouns (such as authoress and poetess).

Gender in Old English

Old English had a system of grammatical gender similar to that of modern German, with three genders: masculine, feminine, neuter. Determiners and attributive adjectives showed gender inflection in agreement with the noun they modified. Also the nouns themselves followed different declension patterns depending on their gender. Moreover the third-person personal pronouns, as well as interrogative and relative pronouns, were chosen according to the grammatical gender of their antecedent.

For details of the declension patterns and pronoun systems, see Old English grammar.

Decline of grammatical gender

By the 11th century, the role of grammatical gender in Old English was beginning to decline.[1] The Middle English of the 13th century was in transition to the loss of a gender system.[2][3] One element of this process was the change in the functions of the words the and that (then spelt þe and þat; see also Old English determiners): previously these had been non-neuter and neuter forms respectively of a single determiner, but in this period the came to be used generally as a definite article and that as a demonstrative; both thus ceased to manifest any gender differentiation.[4] The loss of gender classes was part of a general decay of inflectional endings and declensional classes by the end of the 14th century.[5] While inflectional reduction seems to have been incipient in the English language itself, some theories suggest that it was accelerated by contact with Old Norse, especially in midland and northern dialects.[6]

Gender loss began in the north of England; the south-east and the south-west Midlands were the most linguistically conservative regions, and Kent retained traces of gender in the 1340s.[2] Late 14th-century London English had almost completed the shift away from grammatical gender,[2] and Modern English retains no morphological agreement of words with grammatical gender.[5]

Modern English

Gender is no longer an inflectional category in Modern English.[7] The only traces of the Old English gender system are found in the system of pronoun–antecedent agreement, although this is now generally based on natural gender[8] – the sex, or perceived sexual characteristics (or asexual nature), of the pronoun's referent. Another manifestation of natural gender that continues to function in English is the use of certain nouns to refer specifically to persons or animals of a particular sex: widow/widower, actress, cow/bull, etc.

Benjamin Whorf described grammatical gender in English as a covert grammatical category.[9] He noted that gender as a property inherent in nouns (rather than in their referents) is not entirely absent from modern English: different pronouns may be appropriate for the same referent depending on what noun has been used. For example, one might say this child is eating its dinner, but my daughter is eating her (not its) dinner, even though child and daughter in the respective sentences might refer to the same person.

Personal pronouns

The third-person singular personal pronouns are chosen according to the natural gender of their antecedent or referent. As a general rule:

  • he (and its related forms him, himself, his) is used when the referent is a male person, and sometimes when it is a male animal (or something else to which male characteristics are attributed);
  • she (and her, herself, hers) is used when the referent is a female person, sometimes when it is a female animal, and sometimes when female characteristics are attributed to something inanimate – this is common especially with vessels such as ships and airplanes, and sometimes with countries. An Example is in God Bless America, where one lyric is "Stand beside her, and guide her through the night with a light from above."
  • it (and itself, its) is used when the referent is something inanimate, often when it is an animal, and sometimes for a child when the sex is unspecified.

Pronoun agreement is often with the natural gender of the referent (the person or thing denoted) rather than simply the antecedent (a noun or noun phrase which the pronoun replaces). For example, one might say either the doctor and his patients or the doctor and her patients, depending on one's knowledge or assumptions about the sex of the doctor in question, as the phrase the doctor (the antecedent) does not itself have any specific natural gender. Also, pronouns are sometimes used without any explicit antecedent. However, as noted above (the example with child and daughter), the choice of pronoun may also be affected by the particular noun used in the antecedent.

(When the antecedent is a collective noun, such as family or team, and the pronoun refers to the members of the group denoted rather than the group as a single entity, a plural pronoun may be chosen: compare the family and its origins; the family and their breakfast-time arguments. See also synesis.)

Problems arise when the referent is a person of unknown or unspecified sex. Traditionally the male forms he etc. have been used in such situations, but in contemporary English (partly because of the movement towards gender-neutral language) this is often avoided. Possible alternatives include:

  • use of he or she, he/she, s/he, etc.
  • alternation or random mixture of use of she and he
  • use of singular they (common especially in informal language)
  • use of it (normally only considered when the antecedent is a word like child, baby, infant)

Although the use of she and he for inanimate objects is not very frequent in Standard Modern English, it is in fact fairly widespread in some varieties of English.[10] Gender assignment to inanimate nouns in these dialects is sometimes fairly systematic. For example, in some dialects of southwest England, masculine pronouns are used for individuated or countable matter, such as iron tools, while the neuter form is used for non-individuated matter, such as liquids, fire and other substances.[10][11]


In principle, animals are triple-gender nouns, being able to take masculine, feminine and neuter pronouns. However, animals viewed as less important to humans, also known as ‘lower animals’, are generally referred to using it; higher (domestic) animals may more often be referred to using he and she, when their sex is known.[10] If the sex of the animal is not known, the masculine pronoun is often used with a sex-neutral meaning.[10] For example,

Person A: Ah there’s an ant

Person B: Well put him outside[10]

Animate pronouns he and she are usually applied to animals when personification and/or individuation occurs.[10] Personification occurs whenever human attributes are applied to the noun.[10] For example:

A widow bird sat mourning for her love.[10]

Specifically named animals are an example of individuation, such as Peter Rabbit or Blob the Whale.[10] In these instances, it is more likely that animate pronouns he or she will be used to represent them.[10]

These rules also apply to other triple-gender nouns, including ideas, inanimate objects, and words like infant and child.[10]

Ships and countries

Traditionally ships, even ships named after men such as USS Barry, countries, and oceans have been referred to using the feminine pronouns. The origins of this practice are not certain, and it is currently in decline (though still more common for ships, particularly in nautical usage, than for countries). In Modern English, calling objects "she" is an optional figure of speech, while in American English it is advised against by The Chicago Manual of Style.[12]

Transgender persons

In general, transgender individuals prefer to be referred to by the gender pronoun appropriate to the gender with which they identify. Some genderqueer or similarly-identified people prefer not to use either he or she, but a different pronoun such as they, zie, or so forth. Drag performers, when in costume, are usually referred to by the gender pronouns for the gender they are performing (for example, drag queens are usually called "she" when in drag).

Other pronouns

Other English pronouns are not subject to male/female distinctions, although in some cases a distinction between animate (or rather human) and inanimate (non-human) referents is made. For example, the word who (as an interrogative or relative pronoun) refers to a person or persons, and rarely to animals (although the possessive form whose can be used as a relative pronoun even when the antecedent is inanimate), while which and what refer to inanimate things (and non-human animals). Since these pronouns function on a binary gender system, distinguishing only between animate and inanimate entities, this suggests that English has a second gender system which contrasts with the primary gender system.[10] It should also be noted that relative and interrogative pronouns do not encode number. This is shown in the following example:

The man who lost his head vs. the men who lost their heads[10]

Other pronouns which show a similar distinction include everyone/everybody vs. everything, no one/nobody vs. nothing, etc.

Gender-specific words

Many words in modern English refer specifically to people or animals of a particular sex, although sometimes the specificity is being lost (for example, duck need not refer exclusively to a female bird; cf. Donald Duck). As part of the movement towards gender-neutral language, the use of many specifically female forms, such as poetess, authoress, is increasingly discouraged.

Gender neutrality in English

Gender neutrality in English became a growing area of interest among academics during Second Wave Feminism, when the work of structuralist linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, and his theories on semiotics, became more well known in academic circles. By the 1960s and 1970s, post-structuralist theorists, particularly in France, brought wider attention to gender-neutrality theory, and the concept of supporting gender equality through conscious changes to language. Feminists analyzing the English language put forward their own theories about the power of language to create and enforce gender determinism and the marginalization of the feminine. Debates touched on such issues as changing the term "stewardess" to the gender-neutral "flight attendant", "fireman" to "fire fighter", "mailman" to "mail carrier", and so on. At the root of this contentiousness may have been feminists' backlash against the English language's shift from "grammatical gender" to "natural gender" during the early Modern era[13] coinciding with the spread of institutional prescriptive grammar rules in English schools. These theories have been challenged by some researchers, with attention given to additional possible social, ethnic, economic, and cultural influences on language and gender.[14] The impact on mainstream language has been limited,[15] yet has led to lasting changes in practice.

Features of gender-neutral language in English may include:

  • Avoidance of gender-specific job titles, or caution in their use;
  • Avoidance of the use of man and mankind to refer to humans in general;
  • Avoidance of the use of he, him and his when referring to a person of unspecified sex (see under Template:P/s above).

Certain naming practices (such as the use of Mrs and Miss to distinguish married and unmarried women) may also be discouraged on similar grounds. For more details and examples, see Gender neutrality in English.



See also

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