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Hello everyone

I am writting to you from Portugal.
I studied for several years English in scholl and college.
I´ve always learned that nouns in English are mostly considered as having no gender, except on cases where there is a diference, such as "boy-girl", "widow-widower", "actor-actress".
Recently someone who has studied English Linguistics told me that certains nouns in English can be considered "masculine" and "feminine". She gave me the example of "car", which she says it´s masculine and "boat" that she says it´s feminine.
So, is this true or rather people are using cultural ideas and gender bias to talk about things that are sexless?
I´ve also heard that in poetic use certains words are seen as have a specific gender such as "bird", which is seen as feminine.
I would like to know your opinion on this subject.

Thank you very much.
Original Post
Does English have gender? Yes and no. There are two kinds of gender. Gender that is marked by inflection (word endings or other grammatical means) is known as grammatical gender, while gender that is based on the biological sex of a noun referent is known as notional or covert gender*. European languages such as Spanish, French, and German have grammatical gender; casa ("house"), for example, is a feminine noun and therefore requires a feminine article, a feminine ending on adjectives, and the feminine form of pronouns. English is different: it does not have grammatical gender, it has notional gender.

Your friend is right about boats and ships. Ships and smaller marine vessels are very often referred to in English with a "human" personal pronoun, but the pronoun is always she or her, never he or him. For example:

The Titanic sank on her/its maiden voyage**

Other inanimate objects, such as wheeled vehicles, are referred to with either it or (sometimes) a feminine (not masculine) pronoun:

It/she is a beauty, this Ferrari**

Countries are also referred to with she and her, but only when they do not denote a geographical entity**. Thus we say

Canada is a parliamentary democracy. It has provinces, not states.


Canada is proud of her loyal sons and daughters

Infants and children are referred to with either the sex-neutral pronoun it or with the sex-based pronouns she/he and him/her, depending on the speaker's view or knowledge of the infant or child. Infants and children whose sex is not known or not relevant can be referred to as it; if the sex is known, the appropriate masculine (he,him) or feminine (she, her) pronoun is used.

During the past few years, writers--particularly in the social sciences--in an effort to achieve gender parity, have begun to use the feminine pronouns she andher for nouns such as the child, the consumer, and the reader.

Animals are referred to as it if their sex is not important or not known; very often, however, they are referred to as he/him or she/her. Huddleston and Pullum* describe the use of personal pronouns with animals thus:

"Use of a masculine or feminine pronoun is generally more likely with pets, domestic animals, and creatures ranked high in the kingdom of wild animals (such as lions, tigers, elephants, etc.). It indicates a somewhat greater degree of interest in or empathy with the referent than does it. ...he or she is obligatory if the animal is referred to by a proper name." (Section 17.2.2)

In poetry, are birds or other animate non-humans seen as feminine or masculine? I've never noticed whether or not that is so. Does anyone on the Grammar Exchange have any ideas on this?

Marilyn Martin

*Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985), Section 5.104

**Huddleston, R. and G. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002), Section 17.22

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