I've heard it said that there is no rule for gender of nouns/verbs, and they are neutral. But others say that it is possible, such as vixen for fox.

How do I know which word to use in such cases?


The oldest form of the English language had grammatical gender, but lost it by the 13th century, except in pronouns: the only grammatical role played by gender today is determining what pronoun should be used to refer to an entity, and that is (with a very few exceptions, such as ships and countries) determined by “natural gender”. And even that distinction has been fading since the 1960s, when the feminist movement called attention to the discriminatory effect of using gendered pronouns.

We still deploy pronouns to distinguish between human and non-human, but where humans are involved we try strenuously to avoid distinguishing male and female except where that distinction is topical. In the same way, nouns which distinguish female and male animals (cow/bull, mare/stallion) are still safe to use, as are nouns which distinguish female and male people (woman/man, girl/boy) when the distinction is immediately relevant. But use of male terms to embrace both women and men is deprecated now—for instance, we are called upon to speak of humankind rather than mankind, of a mail carrier rather than a mailman.

The use of suffixes to distinguish female and male animal and agent nouns has largely vanished, too. Vixen is a rare survival from Old English, representing fox with the feminizing suffix -in and associated alteration of the stem vowel. Spinster is another such; it employs the feminizing suffix -ster. Both of these suffixes were lost in ME. There has been some tendency to use the suffix -ess, of French origin, in their place. A few common words (lioness, tigress) came directly from French, and are common; but the suffix has never been entirely nativized. Most agent noun derivatives (authoress, doctoress) have always felt slangy or affected, and the few which have entered common use—actress, for instance—are now distasteful to most of us.

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    "distasteful to most of us" would like to see some evidence for that generalization. I've never heard of anyone who disliked actress over actor when referring to a female. – TylerH Feb 25 '14 at 14:49
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    @TylerH To be sure, I've moved in limited circles: most of us in the theatre find actress distasteful. Perhaps others feel that actress is more acceptable than, say, Jewess or stewardess or developeress. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 25 '14 at 15:13
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    @TylerH I take it from your TR link that you're in game development - do you call women in that field designeresses or developeresses or programmeresses? If not, why not? – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 25 '14 at 15:25
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    @TylerH I'll leave this to the community for now - you and I constitute too small a sample to resolve this! – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 25 '14 at 16:17
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    In the theater community "actor" is preferred among female actors as a gender neutral term. The Screen Actors Guild calls them "Female Actors", not actresses. While still in use, gender-specific terms are on the decline almost universally in America. As well, your female flight attendant is no longer a stewardess, but simply a flight attendant, as stewardess is another gender-specific term that to some implies deficit due to gender. – Metagrapher Feb 25 '14 at 16:34

A vixen is a specifically female fox. It is not the female term for a fox. A fox is a fox is a fox. A vixen is a female fox. Just like a woman is a female human.

There are no genders for nouns and verbs in English like in other languages, unless you are specifically referring to a male or female species.

  • Genders in verbs, hm. – tchrist Feb 25 '14 at 12:19
  • @tchrist to emasculate ? (But yes, "like in other languages" makes me wonder as well, although there might be some. Think I caught something about Thai on the chat yesterday or Sunday) – oerkelens Feb 25 '14 at 12:35
  • @tchrist I seem to recall that some Slavic languages inflect verbs for gender. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 25 '14 at 18:18

Nouns are only gendered if they refer to something gendered (and not necessarily then).

Some examples of when they are:

Nouns themselves changing

  • Animals, e.g. fox/vixen, cow/bull, dog/bitch, sow/boar, etc. Sometimes the word for one gender is the same as the word for the whole species: there's no special word for a "male dog" for example, even though "dog" doesn't necessarily mean that the animal is male.
  • Imported words like fiancé(e), blond(e), etc., which add an e for the female form
  • Words referring to people - waiter/waitress, actor/actress, fireman/firewoman. These are increasingly being replaced so that "actor" for example usually refers to both male actors and female actors, and "firefighter" has replaced the gendered terms above.

Gender of the pronoun you'd use to replace it

  • Ships are female
  • By convention, most people seem to use "he" for an pet of unknown gender (I say pet rather than animal because probably "it" would be used for wild animals), except for cats for some reason, where "she" seems to be preferred until/unless corrected. I should add that this is my personal experience only and it's entirely possible that other commenters will chime in and say something different!

I can't think of any examples of verbs being gendered.

  • The word for a male dog is "dog." The word for a female dog is "bitch." These uses are technical, though, and aren't used by most people. – LMS Jan 10 '17 at 11:38

There are English verbs that are humorously claimed to take different forms for men and women. For example, men sweat but women perspire. But thats a joke, not an actual grammatical rule.

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