Grammatical Gender

In English, grammatical gender is a property of only nouns and pronouns. It is one of the simplest parts of English grammar for the concept is clear and consistent.

This is because gender in English is based on natural gender (i.e. maleness and femaleness) rather than grammar (i.e. morphology).

It is not so in many other languages, where the concept of grammatical gender is based on morphology and may apply not only to nouns and pronouns but also to other parts of speech such as adjectives and verbs.

What is Gender in English?

In English, the idea is simple.

A male person or male animal belongs to one gender-class; a female person or female animal belongs to another. Simple, isn't it?

If English had grammatical gender then nouns, pronouns, even other parts of speech would have belonged to different gender groups depending upon their word-endings—and even these would have had exceptions!

Mercifully, English is much simpler than those languages.

Look at these sentences...

  • He gets upset. She remains calm.
  • The lioness stays with the cubs. The lion goes out to hunt.
  • The man is an actor. The woman is an actress.

The pronoun he and the nouns lion, man, actor refer to male persons or animals. They belong to one class of gender. The pronoun she and the nouns lioness, woman, and actress refer to female persons or animals. Hence these belong to another class of gender.

Does this mean that English has only two gender-classes?

No. English has four.

This fact makes it easy for us to have clear divisions. The simplicity of this part of grammar in English comes from having four classes. I will explain this to you in a moment.

Gender is of Four Kinds in English.

English divides nouns and pronouns into four genders in this way:

  1. Masculine:

    All males (and only males) are said to belong to the masculine gender. (examples: boy, man, landlord, god, tiger, horse, rooster, stag, he, etc)

  2. Feminine:

    All females (and only females) belong to this gender category. (examples: girl, woman, goddess, landlady, tigress, mare, hen, doe, hind, she, etc)

  3. Common:

    Nouns and pronouns that belong to this gender are either male or female, but we are not concerned about it. (examples: teacher, child, worker, baby, infant, human being, person, etc)

  4. Neuter:

    All nouns and pronouns to which maleness or femaleness doesn't apply belong to this gender category. (Material things: stone, table, gold, book; all abstract nouns: e.g. childhood, independence, intelligence, chairmanship, etc.)

Gender in Modern Usage.

Nowadays some words in the Masculine Gender are used as Common Gender. Everybody doesn't do it, but if you follow this trend, you will be considered modern!

I wish to give you a few examples:

  • actor - Used for both male and female—traditionally, actor and actress; poet for both poet and poetess. The purpose is to avoid gender bias about which people are very conscious today.

  • governor - for both male and female. This is perhaps because the woman ruler of a province would not like the word 'governess' to be used for her lest people misunderstand that she is someone employed in a rich family to teach its children.

  • priest - for both male and female. A modern ordained clergywoman would not like to be called a 'priestess.' I think, the word reminds people of temple prostitution in ancient cultures.

A Problem.

Look at this example.

A teacher should not say lies. ________ should always speak the truth.

Would you put a he or a she in the blank space? English uses the pronoun 'he' for masculine, 'she' for feminine, and 'it' for neuter. These words are all singulars.

English has no pronoun to use for common gender, singular, and third person .

The nature of this problem and the various solutions offered, even strange ones such as the 'singular they' (the use of which has now become respectable) is another story!

For Further Reading and Study...

Related Pages

What is a Noun?

Kinds of Nouns

Common Nouns

Proper Nouns

Collective Nouns

Concrete and Abstract Nouns

Countable Nouns

Forms and Functions