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Gender‏‎ in English Grammar

WC Sign for female, male & alien

This is a very general guide to Gender in English. Unlike many other languages it is fairly straightforward in English which makes it relatively easy for language learners and explaining it in your TEFL classroom.

To begin with and in practical terms, English grammatical gender applies only to nouns and pronouns‏‎ which are masculine, feminine or neuter. These groups are very simple to make and as a general guide:

masculine > men and boys

feminine > women and girls

neuter > everything else

What this means in practical terms is that when we talk about these things using pronouns, we need to choose the correct pronoun to use: masculine, feminine or neuter.

See that man? Well he is my teacher.

See that woman? Well she is my teacher.

See that desk? Well it is my desk.

Since the groups are fairly logical it is not usually a problem to decide which gender something is.

Compare with Gender in Other Languages

Life is easy for English language learners in this regard. Compare this to those learning French, for example. As well as learning the noun itself you will also need to learn its gender because French gender is not always very logical. To take a few examples:

stars, cars, and doors are feminine

apple trees, cheeses, and diamonds are masculine

but nothing is neuter but some nouns are both genders

Meanwhile in German there are nouns of masculine, feminine and neuter which doesn’t always correspond with the real life gender of the object. Famously Mark Twain wrote about this saying, “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.”

And once learned, not only do pronouns but also adjectives‏‎ and other grammatical items often change depending on the gender of the noun they are talking about.

Other English Gender Concerns

But back to English and gender does not only apply to nouns and which pronoun we use with them. We also use different names for people depending on whether they are male or female.

family relations

Family relations have masculine and feminine forms:

masculine   feminine
bridegroom   bride
brother   sister
father   mother
husband   wife
nephew   niece
son   daughter
uncle   aunt
widower   widow

animals

Animals have masculine and feminine forms; these are some common ones:

masculine   feminine
bull   cow
cock   hen
dog   bitch
drake   duck
fox   vixen
gander   goose
lion   lioness
stallion   mare
tiger   tigress

Remember, however, that with animals we often use the neuter pronoun, it, to refer to them unless they are pets or we know they are male or female.

jobs

Some jobs also have masculine and feminine forms; these are some common ones:

masculine   feminine
actor   actress
author   authoress
duke   duchess
hero   heroine
king   queen
male nurse   nurse
manager   manageress
monk   nun
policeman   policewoman
spokesman   spokeswoman
steward   stewardess
waiter   waitress

Gender-Specific

A word like doctor can apply to a man or a woman; the word is not gender-specific. However, a word like nun can apply only to a woman which makes it gender-specific.

Some people think that some gender-specific words are sexist. To avoid being gender-specific, we can use alternatives:

spokesperson | police officer | firefighter | salesperson | reporter

Or we can use one of the forms for both men and women:

She became company manager after her promotion.

My mother is the author of several popular romance novels.

Both Eric and Jane worked as nurses in the same hospital.

gender-specific pronouns

When we talk about a member of a mixed group of people we can say:

A good scientist must keep careful notes of his or her work.

This, however, is not very elegant. One popular alternative is to use a masculine pronoun as a neuter pronoun:

A good scientist must keep careful notes of his work.

But this is gender specific; it implies that scientists are men. A better alternative is to use the pronoun their instead:

A good scientist must keep careful notes of their work.

When we talk about an object, it is neuter. However, if we give the object a personality, we can make the noun masculine or feminine.

This happens with pet animals, or animals we know well:

The dog stayed in her bed and did not eat anything; I think she is ill.

Note: dog as a common noun can be masculine or neuter.

It also happens with cars and ships which are often female:

The Titanic sank on her maiden voyage; she hit an iceberg.

My car wouldn’t start – I think she is ready for the scrap heap.

Countries are sometimes female:

Britain called on her allies to help fight the threat.

But people sometimes talk about their countries as being the motherland or the fatherland.

For a more in-depth look at this (including some of the issues regarding gender and language) see the main article, Gender Neutral Pronouns in English Grammar.

Image © Davezilla was taken

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