Meaning of Gender in English Grammar

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

cat and shar pei puppy
"Many speakers use she indiscriminately for cats and he for dogs" (Language and Gender, 2013). anniepaddington/Getty Images

Gender is a grammatical classification which in Modern English applies primarily to the third-person singular personal pronouns. Also known as grammatical gender.

Unlike many other European languages, English no longer has masculine and feminine inflections for nouns and determiners

From Latin, "race, kind."

Examples and Observations

"Although English and German are descendants of the same branch of Germanic, viz. West Germanic, they are characterized by rather different developments in the course of their histories. . . .

"While German preserved the system of grammatical gender inherited from Germanic and ultimately from Indo-European, English lost it and replaced it by natural gender, a development which is assumed to have taken place in late Old English and early Middle English, i.e. roughly between the 10th and the 14th century. . . ."
(Dieter Kastovsky, "Inflectional Classes, Morphological Restructuring, and the Dissolution of Old English Grammatical Gender." Gender in Grammar and Cognition, ed. by Barbara Unterbeck and Matti Rissanen. Mouton de Gruyter, 1999)

The Loss of Gender in Middle English
"'[F]unctional overload' . . . seems to be a plausible way to account for what we observe in Middle English, that is, after Old English and Old Norse had come into contact: gender assignment often diverged in Old English and Old Norse, which would have readily led to the elimination of it in order to avoid confusion and to lessen the strain of learning the other contrastive system. . . .

"[I]n an alternative account, it was the contact with French that played the role of a catalyst in the eventual loss of gender in Middle English: when French entered the English language, the distinction of gender became problematic, because speakers were confronted with two quite different gender categories. Since it is always difficult to learn gender in a second language, the consequence of this conflict was that gender was given up in Middle English."
(Tania Kuteva and Bernd Heine, "An Integrative Model of Grammaticalization."  Grammatical Replication and Borrowability in Language Contact, ed. by Björn Wiemer, Bernhard Wälchli, and Björn Hansen. Walter de Gruyter, 2012)

Gendered Pets
"Even in English, which does not have a full-blown grammatical gender system, there is a tendency to ignore the sex of some animals but still refer to them with gendered forms. Many speakers use she indiscriminately for cats and he for dogs."
(Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet, Language and Gender, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2013)

American Males and Their Female Cars
- "I smiled back at him and toyed with all of the gadgets in the car.

"'Oh, she's nice, ain't she? This is top of the line here,' he told me.

"'Why do men refer to cars as she?' I asked just for the hell of it.

"'Because we're men,' Byron answered. He laughed, a strong hearty laugh. Maybe it was too hearty. He was really pleased with his sale."
(Omar Tyree, For the Love of Money. Simon and Schuster, 2000)

- "American males often refer to their cars as a she, thereby revealing their dominance over the machines and women . . .."
(Tony Magistrale, Hollywood's Stephen King. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

Gender and Third-Person Singular Pronouns
"The 3rd person singular pronouns contrast in gender:

- The masculine gender pronoun he is used for males — humans or animals that have salient enough characteristics for us to think of them as differentiated (certainly for gorillas, usually for ducks, probably not for rats, certainly not for cockroaches).
- The feminine gender pronoun she is used for females, and also, by extension, for certain other things conventionally treated in a similar way: political entities ( France has recalled her ambassador) and certain personified inanimates, especially ships ( May God bless her and all who sail in her.).
- The neuter pronoun it is used for inanimates, or for male and female animals (especially lower animals and non-cuddly creatures), and sometimes for human infants if the sex is unknown or considered irrelevant. . . .

"No singular 3rd person pronoun in English is universally accepted as appropriate for referring to a human when you don't want to specify sex. . . . The pronoun most widely used in such cases is they, in a secondary use that is interpreted semantically as singular."
(Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Agreement With Indefinites
"Under close scrutiny, [the rule mandating singular agreement with indefinites] emerges as a pragmatically cumbersome, linguistically unreliable, and ideologically provocative rule, which entered the canon under false pretenses."
(Elizabeth S. Sklar, "The Tribunal of Use: Agreement in Indefinite Constructions." College Composition and Communication, December 1988)

Pronunciation: JEN-der

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Meaning of Gender in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Meaning of Gender in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Meaning of Gender in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).