Gender in English

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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 genders and certain others (such as it) for sexless objects – although feminine pronouns are sometimes used when referring to ships (and more uncommonly some airplanes 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 unknown gender, usually using the neuter they as a third-person singular, and avoidance of the use of certain feminine forms of nouns (such as authoress and poetess). Increasingly, the "male" form of such nouns is used for both men and women.[1]

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.

Old English grammatical gender was, as in other Germanic languages, remarkably opaque, that is, one often could not know the gender of a noun by its meaning or by the form of the word; this was especially true for nouns referencing inanimate objects. Learners would have had to simply memorize which word goes with which gender.[2]:10 Though nouns referring to human males were generally masculine and for the most part the masculine went with human males and the feminine went with human females, as Charles Jones noted, "it is with those nouns which show explicit female reference that the sex specifying function of the gender classification system appears to break down,..." Most words referencing human females were feminine, but there was a sizable number of words that were either neuter or even masculine.[2]:6-7 Here are the discrepant nouns referring specifically to human females as listed by Jones:[2]:7

Old English had multiple generic nouns for "woman" stretching across all 3 genders: for example, in addition to the neuter wif and the masculine wifmann listed above, there was also the feminine frowe.[2]:6 For the gender-neutral nouns for "child", there was the feminine byren in addition to the neuter bearn and the neuter cild (compare English child). And even with nouns referring to persons, one could not always determine gender by meaning or form: for example, with 2 words ending in -mæg, there was the female-specific neuter noun wynmæg, meaning "winsome maid" or attractive woman; as well as the gender-neutral noun meaning "paternal kindred" or member of father's side of the family, but which was grammatically feminine: fædernmæg.[2]:7-8

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.[3] The Middle English of the 13th century was in transition to the loss of a gender system.[4][5] 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.[6] The loss of gender classes was part of a general decay of inflectional endings and declensional classes by the end of the 14th century.[7] 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.[8]

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.[4] Late 14th-century London English had almost completed the shift away from grammatical gender,[4] and Modern English retains no morphological agreement of words with grammatical gender.[7]

Modern English

Gender is no longer an inflectional category in Modern English.[9] The only traces of the Old English gender system are found in the system of pronoun–antecedent agreement, although this is now based on natural gender[10] – the sex, gender identity, or perceived sexual characteristics, 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, actor/actress, etc.

Benjamin Whorf described grammatical gender in English as a covert grammatical category.[11] 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.[citation needed]

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 male, or something to which male characteristics are attributed;
  • she (and her, herself, hers) is used when the referent is female, or something to which female characteristics are attributed – this is common especially with vessels such as ships and airplanes, and sometimes with countries. An example is in God Bless America: "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 or intangible, a non-animal life-form such as a plant, an animal of unknown sex, or, less often, a child when the sex is unspecified or deemed unimportant.[citation needed] It is also used in the interrogative for people in some phrases such as, "Who is it?".

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.)

Because there is no third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun for animate referents, problems arise when the referent is a person of unknown or unspecified sex. Traditionally the male forms he etc. or the singular they have been used in such situations, but in contemporary English (partly because of the movement towards gender-neutral language) the male forms are often avoided in this context. 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 referent is a young child)

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.[12] 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.[12][13]


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.[12] If the sex of the animal is not known, the masculine pronoun is often used with a sex-neutral meaning.[12] For example,

Person A: Ah there’s an ant

Person B: Well put him outside[12]

Animate pronouns he and she are usually applied to animals when personification and/or individuation occurs.[12] Personification occurs whenever human attributes are applied to the noun.[12] For example:

A widow bird sat mourning for her love.[12]

Specifically named animals are an example of individuation, such as Peter Rabbit or Blob the Whale.[12] In these instances, it is more likely that animate pronouns he or she will be used to represent them.[12]

These rules also apply to other triple-gender nouns, including ideas, inanimate objects, and words like infant and child.[12]


Traditionally, oceans, countries, and ships, even those named after men such as USS Barry, have been referred to using the feminine pronouns. This usage is currently in decline (though still more common for ships, particularly in nautical usage, than for countries); in American English it is advised against by The Chicago Manual of Style.[14]

Transgender persons

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.[15]

Other pronouns

Other English pronouns are not subject to male/female distinctions, although in some cases a distinction between animate and inanimate referents is made. For example, the word who (as an interrogative or relative pronoun) refers to a person or people, 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.[12] 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[12]

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).[citation needed]

An example of an English word that has retained gender-specific spellings is the noun-form of blond/blonde, with the former being masculine and the latter being feminine.

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[citation needed] against the English language's shift from "grammatical gender" to "natural gender" during the early Modern era[16] 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.[17] The impact on mainstream language has been limited,[18] 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;[19]
  • 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 § Personal pronouns 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



  1. ^ Stevenson, Angus (ed.) (2010). Oxford Dictionary of English, 3rd Ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, p. 598. ISBN 978-0-19-957112-3.
  2. ^ a b c d e 1939-, Jones, Charles, (1988). Grammatical gender in English, 950 to 1250. London: Croom Helm. ISBN 0709914768. OCLC 16404179. 
  3. ^ Curzan 2003, pp. 84, 86: "[T]he major gender shift for inanimate nouns in written texts occurs in late Old English/early Middle English, but [...] the seeds of change are already present in Old English before 1000 AD."
  4. ^ a b c Lass, Roger (2006). "Phonology and morphology". In Richard M. Hogg, David Denison. A history of the English language. Cambridge University Press. p. 70. ISBN 0-521-66227-3. 
  5. ^ Curzan 2003, p. 86: "[G]rammatical gender remained healthy in the personal pronouns through late Old English; it is not until early Middle English that the balance of gender concord in the pronouns tips towards natural gender, at least in the written language."
  6. ^ Shinkawa, Seiji (2012). Unhistorical Gender Assignment in Laʒamon's Brut. Switzerland: Peter Lang. 
  7. ^ a b Hellinger, Marlis; Bussmann, Hadumod (2001). "English — Gender in a global language". Gender across languages: the linguistic representation of women and men. 1. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 107. ISBN 90-272-1841-2. 
  8. ^ Curzan 2003, p. 53.
  9. ^ Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002).
  10. ^ 'English Language', Archived 2009-11-01 at WebCite Encarta, (Microsoft Corporation, 2007). "The distinctions of grammatical gender in English were replaced by those of natural gender.". 2009-10-31.
  11. ^ Benjamin Lee Whorf, 'Grammatical Categories', Language 21 (1945): 1–11. See also Robert A. Hall Jr, 'Sex Reference and Grammatical Gender in English', American Speech 26 (1951): 170–172.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Siemund, Peter (2008). Pronominal Gender in English: A Study of English Varieties form a Cross-Linguistic Perspective. New York: Routledge. 
  13. ^ Compare the similar Early Modern English formation which is typified in the prose of the King James Bible (or Authorized Version), here shewed in the Gospel of St Matthew, v,13: Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
  14. ^ Grossman, John, ed. (2003). The Chicago Manual of Style (15th ed.). University of Chicago Press. p. 356. ISBN 978-0-226-10403-4. LCCN 2003001860. OCLC 51553085. OL 15979229W. When a pronoun is used to refer to a vessel, the neuter it (rather than she or her) is generally preferred. 
  15. ^ Binkley, Collin (19 September 2015). "Pick your own pronoun at university". Toronto Star. Toronto Star. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 2017-02-18. Retrieved 24 April 2016. 
  16. ^ Meyer, Charles F. (2010). Introducing English Linguistics International Student Edition. Cambridge University Press. p. 14. ISBN 9780521152211. 
  17. ^ Curzan 2003, pp. 39, 151, 156.
  18. ^ Cameron 1992, p. 29.
  19. ^ "English Grammar Lessons - Gender Usage - ELC". ELC - English Language Center. 2017-06-07. Retrieved 2017-10-24. 


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