Gender-specific Noun

What Is a Gender-specific Noun?

A gender-specific noun is a noun that refers specifically to someone or something male or a female. In English, the gender of most nouns is neuter. However, if a noun refers to something obviously male or female, then its gender will be masculine or feminine (as determined by the meaning).

When a noun's meaning makes its gender masculine or feminine, it is said to be a gender-specific noun.

Table of Contents

  • Examples of Gender-specific Nouns
  • Real-Life Examples of Gender-specific Nouns
  • "Find the Gender-specific Nouns" Test
  • Why Gender-specific Nouns Are Important
  • Video Lesson
  • Test Time!
gender-specific noun examples

Examples of Gender-specific Nouns

Here are some examples of gender-specific nouns.

Nouns referring to females:

  • queen, vixen (female fox), bitch (female dog), sow (female pig)
  • (The grammatical gender of these nouns is feminine.)

Nouns referring to males:

  • king, uncle, drake (male duck), wether (a castrated male sheep or goat)
  • (The grammatical gender of these nouns is masculine.)

The following are not gender-specific nouns:

  • soldier, shark, lawyer, person
  • (Without further context, these are gender-neutral nouns.)

Real-Life Examples of Gender-specific Nouns

In English, the gender of a noun determines the pronouns we use with it (e.g., he, she, it) and the possessive determiners (e.g., his, her, its). In each of the following examples, the gender-specific noun is shaded and the related pronoun or possessive determiner is in bold.
  • My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. (Writer Mark Twain)
  • She got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. (Actor Jim Carrey)
  • I haven't spoken to my wife in years. I didn't want to interrupt her. (Comedian Rodney Dangerfield)

"Find the Gender-specific Nouns" Test

Can You Identify Gender-specific Nouns?

Why Gender-specific Nouns Are Important

Mistakes involving gender-specific nouns are rare. However, the following two issues are worthy of note.

(Issue 1) Using the word "actress"

Using the gender-specific noun "actress" is a considered sexist by some, most probably because the noun "actor" has always been a gender-neutral term meaning a person who acts. Some feel the word "actress," which emerged long after "actor," is not needed and only serves to engender gender inequality. (After all, there are no female versions of nouns like "doctor," "politician," "pilot," and "beggar," so it's a fair point.) As a result of increasing public awareness on gender equality, the gender-neutral usage of "actor" is becoming more popular in modern English as people strive not to offend.

(Issue 2) Using the word "chairman"

Not everyone treats the noun "chairman" as a gender-specific noun, and it is regularly used for men and women. However, quite understandably, many consider it as masculine noun, and when the appointed person is female, they opt for "chairwoman" (a term that has been in use since at least the 17th century). So, some will think "chairman" is just for men, and some won't. This issue is often avoided by using the gender-neutral term "chairperson" or "chair."
  • Don't call me "chairman" because I'm a woman. Don't call me "chairwoman" because my sex is irrelevant. Don't call me "chairperson" because that term is trying too hard not to be sexist. Call me "chair."
  • (This captures the issue. If you're unsure, use "chair.")
The fire and rescue services avoided the same issue with "fireman" by introducing "firefighter." The Royal Mail in the United Kingdom has kept the distinction, using "postman" and "postwoman," but, informally, will use the gender-neutral "postie."

In truth, it's become bit of minefield. Some might view your use of the "-man" version as sexist while others might view your avoidance of the "-man" version as sexist. This old joke plays on the dilemma:
  • Q: What do you call a blonde girl who flies a plane?
  • A: A pilot.
  • (It's sexist because it's not sexist.)

Key Points

Video Lesson

Here is 9-minute video summarizing grammatical gender in English. video lesson

Are you a visual learner? Do you prefer video to text? Here is a list of all our grammar videos.

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This page was written by Craig Shrives.