What Is the Neuter Gender? (with Examples)

by Craig Shrives

Neuter Gender in Grammar

Neuter gender is one of three genders in English grammar. The three genders for nouns and pronouns are as follows: The associated singular pronouns are:
GenderPronounPossessive Determiner
(a type of pronoun)
Possessive Pronoun
masculine pronounshe
Example: He is cold.
his
Example: These are his boots.
his
Example: These are his.
feminine pronounsshe
Example: She is cold.
her
Example: These are her earrings.
hers
Example: These are hers.
neuter pronounsit
Example: It is cold.
its
Example: These are its toys.
its
Example: These are its. (rare)

Unless its meaning makes it obviously male (e.g., "boy," "king," "boar") or female (e.g., "princess," "hen," "mare"), a noun in English is neuter by default. Here are two noteworthy points related to gender:
  • Large machines. Large machines such as ships and trains, which - by default - are neuter, are sometimes affectionately given a female gender (i.e., referred to as "she" or "her").
  • Animals. An animal is referred to as "it." It is only referred to as "he" or "she" when the sex is known.
gender in grammar
If the word does not denote something obviously masculine or feminine, then it is a neuter word.

Why Should I Care about Neuter Gender?

There are three noteworthy issues related to neuter gender.

(Issue 1) There's no apostrophe in the neuter possessive determiner "its."

Look at the following list of nouns and their possessive determiners:
  • A king and his son
  • ("His" is the possessive determiner for something of masculine gender.)
  • A queen and her dog
  • ("Her" is the possessive determiner for something of feminine gender.)
  • A shark and its prey
  • ("Its" is the possessive determiner for something of neuter gender.)
Note that there is no apostrophe in its.

"It's" (with an apostrophe) is a contraction of "it is" or "it has." If you can't expand your "it's" to "it is" or "it has," then it is wrong. That is a 100% rule!

Read more about "its" and "it's."

(Issue 2) Finding an alternative to "his/her."

In English, there is no singular, neuter possessive determiner for people. in other words, the singular possessive determiner "its" cannot be used for a person whose gender is unknown. For example:
  • Each student must ensure its guest signs the registry.
  • ("Its" cannot be used for people.)
In the past,"he" or "his" was used to denote "his or her." This is no longer an acceptable practice, and "their" is used instead. For example:
  • Each student must ensure his guest signs the registry.
  • (This is an outdated practice.)
  • Each student must ensure his/her guest signs the registry.
  • (This is clumsy as well as outdated.)
  • Each student must ensure their guest signs the registry.
  • (This is now the accepted solution.)
Read more about singular "they" and "their."

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

Some people identify as "non-binary." This means they do not identify as male or female or as both. These people might ask you to use "they" (and "their," "them," "theirs," "themself") or just their name instead of a pronoun (e.g., "Terry," "Terry's," "Terry's self") when talking about them.

Read more about using non-binary pronouns.
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is gender? What are nouns? What are pronouns? What is the feminine gender? What is the masculine gender? What are possessive adjective? What are absolute possessive pronouns? Glossary of grammatical terms