Gender in Grammar

by Craig Shrives

What Is Gender in Grammar? (with Examples)

Gender is a category of noun. A noun can have a masculine gender, a feminine gender, or a neuter gender.

Easy Examples of Gender

  • man (masculine gender)
  • woman (feminine gender)
  • house (neuter gender)
  • chicken (neuter gender – if we don't know if it’s a rooster or a hen)
gender in grammar
If the word does not denote something obviously masculine or feminine, then it is a neuter word.

More Examples of Gender

In English, the gender of a noun affects the pronouns we use with it (e.g., he, she, it) and the possessive determiners (e.g., his, her, its). For example:
  • The man ripped his new coat, which he only bought yesterday.
  • The woman lost her blue shoes, which she had never worn.
  • The dog chewed its leather collar, which it hated.
While there are lots of gender-specific nouns in English (e.g., actor, actress, prince, princess), a normal noun (e.g., parent, cousin, teenager, teacher) doesn't reflect its gender until it is substituted for a pronoun or used with a possessive determiner.

More Examples of Gender

Here are some more examples of nouns and their genders:
CupNeuterWhere's my cup? I have lost it.
BoyMasculineHas that boy finished his chores?
PrincessFeminineThe princess has eaten hers.
Here is a 9-minute video summarizing this lesson on gender.

Genders Can Change in English

In English, nouns are categorized as masculine, feminine, or neuter depending on their meaning. Most nouns are neuter, unless they obviously refer to something male or female. (Only the third person pronouns (i.e., he, his, she, her, hers, it, and its) reflect gender.)

In many other languages (e.g., Russian, Serbo-Croat, and German), the spelling of a noun (as opposed to its meaning) often determines its gender.

For example, if a noun ends -a (in Russian or Serbo-Croat) or ends –heit (in German), then it will be feminine. This is not how it works in English, where gender is directly linked to whether something is male or female. In English, gender can even change. Look at these examples:
DogNeuterWhere's its bone?
DogMasculineWhere's his bone?
DogFeminineWhere's her bone?

Feminine Gender for Ships and Machines

Even though they are not literally female, ships and other machines are sometimes affectionately given a feminine gender.
boatNeuterI have worked on this boat all my life. It is a beauty.
boatFeminineI have worked on this boat all my life. She is a beauty.
There are three notable issues linked to gender.

(Issue 1) Finding an alternative to his/her.

Look at these sentences:
  • Each person must understand where he fits in the team.
  • Anyone who forgets his passport will be sent home.
But what if they're not all male? Using he or his for unknown people was the accepted practice, but no longer. It is, of course, sexist and inaccurate.

To get around this, you could write:
  • Each person must understand where he/she fits in the team.
  • Anyone who forgets his or her passport will be sent home.
But, as they're clumsy solutions, lots of people naturally opt for this:
  • Each person must understand where they fit in the team.
  • Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home.
This has been going on for over six centuries, and so it sounds fine. However, we now have person and anyone (both of which are singular) paired up with they and their (both of which are plural). Surely, they're grammar mistakes? Well, nowadays, they're not. Using a "singular they" (as it's called) is now a formally accepted practice. (NB: "Singular they" was nominated as the American Dialect Society's word of the year in 2015.)

It's not just they and their that can be singular. Them and theirs can be too.

This issue commonly crops up with sentences including the pronouns anyone, everyone, and everyone. If you really can't bear pairing them with a plural pronoun, then reword your sentence.
  • Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home.
  • If you forget your passport, you will be sent home.
  • (This reworded version avoids pairing the singular anyone with the plural their.

(Issue 2) Choosing the right version of blonde/blond.

The word blond/blonde changes depending on its gender.

Blond is a noun meaning a fair-haired male.
  • The blond has nice shoes.
  • (We now know it's a boy.)
Blond is also an adjective used to describe anybody (regardless of their gender) with fair hair.
  • The blond girl and the blond boy make a nice blond couple.
  • (When it's an adjective, blond can be used for all genders.)
Blonde is a noun meaning a fair-haired female.
  • The blonde has nice shoes.
  • (We now know it's a girl.)
Blonde is also an adjective used to describe a female (or females) with fair hair.
  • The blonde girl and the blond boy make a nice blond couple.
  • (As an adjective, blonde or blond can be used to describe females.)

(Issue 3) Using gender-neutral pronouns for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female.

Be aware that some people identify themselves as both male and female while others as neither male nor female. These people might ask you to use they (and of course their, them, theirs, themself) or just their name instead of a pronoun (e.g., Sarah, Sarah's, Sarah's self) when talking about them.

You might also have noticed other gender-neutral pronouns appearing. Ey, per, sie, ve, and zie are all recently proposed alternatives to he or she, but at present none is showing any signs of entering into common usage. However, use of they for a gender-neutral singular pronoun (or "non-binary pronoun" as it's often called in this context) is deemed by a growing number of linguistics specialists to have a chance, particularly as it's used in a similar way already (see "Issue 1" above). Read more about using non-binary pronouns.

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