Gender of English nouns

(Masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns in English)

What gender do English nouns have?

English differs from many other languages in terms of the gender of nouns. In fact, there is no grammatical gender as it may be found in other languages with masculine, feminine, and neuter words. This becomes obvious as all English nouns can go with the articles ‘the’ or ‘a/an’ that do not give any details about the gender. Compare:

  • In English grammar, only ‘the, a’ and ‘an’ appear before the noun, even if other languages offer different genders (which may be shown by separate articles for each gender). This is particularly important for learners of English as a foreign language:
    • the excursion’ or an excursion’
    • the lamp’ or a lamp’
    • the building’ or a building’

What is special about personal pronouns (he, she, it)?

Despite the non-existence of grammatical gender, you need to pay attention to the use of personal pronouns. This concerns the natural, which means the biological, gender, which is also called sex (What is the natural gender?). It plays an important role as either ‘he, she’ or ‘it’ needs to be chosen. Consequently, a direct translation from other languages can be tricky. The following principle counts for English grammar:

  • When humans are addressed, ‘he’ or ‘she’ is almost exclusively used – ‘he’ for male persons and ‘she’ for female persons:
    • That lady is a good friend of ours. She often visits us.”
    • My uncle lives in Toronto. He is a lawyer.”
    • Attention: The natural gender/sex is not always clear. Nouns such as ‘worker, friend, pilot, seller’ and many more can stand for a woman or a man:
      • My friend’s name is John. He comes from Sweden.”
        • Only the second sentence makes it clear that the statement is about a man.
      • The seller was very kind. She accepted a discount.”
        • In this example, it is also the second sentence that identifies the person as a woman.
  • When describing things or animals, ‘it’ is adequate in most cases. Be careful here as this fact often leads to mistakes:
    • The tree is old. It is very green this year.”
      • Although this may be different in other languages, the grammatical gender of ‘tree’ is neither masculine nor feminine and so ‘it’ for things needs to be used:
      • Wrong: He is very green this year.”
    • The bridge is long. It was built two years ago.”
      • In other languages, a bridge is sometimes referred to as a ‘she’. However, in English a bridge is also a thing and always needs ‘it’ as its pronoun:
      • Wrong: She was built two years ago.”
    • “Did you see that dog? It was so small.”
      • Similarly, animals are substituted by ‘it’ most of the time.
      • Not suitable would be: He was so small.”
      • Information: Considering the circumstances, there may be other possibilities. For more information, the article ‘When can I use ‘it’ for animals?’ offers a detailed explanation.

Exceptions (‘he’ and ‘she’ for things)

On occasion, even ‘he’ and ‘she’ can substitute things. In spite of that, this use is rare (often due to stylistic reasons) and principally happens when talking about boats/ships, cars, or planes. The usage is declining, and substitution by ‘it’ is possible and correct in every case:

  • “Look at your vintage car. She’s beautiful.”
  • “We three pilots have bought a small plane. She’s our baby now.”

What nouns have feminine and masculine forms?

As already mentioned, an English noun does not show grammatical gender. In order to indicate the biological gender or sex, however, there are different gender-specific forms in some cases.

Gender-dependent forms

Masculine forms (he) Feminine forms (she)
boy girl
brother sister
father mother
husband wife
man woman
nephew niece
son daughter
uncle aunt

Nouns with added complements

An easy way to express the natural gender is to add ‘boy,’ ‘girl’ to the beginning of the word or by attaching ‘man’ and ‘woman’ to the end. Nevertheless, not many words offer this possibility:

Masculine forms (he) Feminine forms (she)
boyfriend girlfriend
chairman chairwoman
Englishman Englishwoman
fireman firewoman
policeman policewoman
spokesman spokeswoman

Nouns with female suffix ‘-ess

Moreover, some nouns can be transformed into their feminine form (for female) by adding ‘-ess’ as a suffix or ending. Examples are:

Masculine forms (he) Feminine forms (she)
actor actress
heir heiress
prince princess
waiter waitress

Information: In modern English, it is not uncommon to use the masculine form for both genders/sexes (male and female).

Further explanations referring to the ‘Gender of English nouns’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, neuter) of English nouns’ and may also be interesting for you:

  • Use of nouns in English grammar
  • Use of personal pronouns in English grammar
  • List of exercises about parts of speech
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