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This is my son's textbook. Q:"Is it a man or woman" A: "A man"

two kids watching two men walk down the street

Guoguo: Hi, Mike. Why are you standing there?
Mike: Hi, Guoguo. I'm waiting for my dad's friend.
Guoguo: Is it a man or a woman?
Mike: A man. Look! Here he comes.
Guoguo: There are two men. Which one? What is he wearing?
Mike: It's the taller man. He is wearing a blue suit with a silver tie.
Guoguo: Ah , yes. He is wearing a pair of black shoes.
Mike: Yes, he is Mr Brown. He's a lawyer.
Guoguo: No wonder he looks so serious. I have to say goodbye to you now.
Mike: Bye-bye! See you tomorrow, Guoguo!

I think it is simply wrong (and in so many ways). As this is a textbook for Grade Six I think the simplest way to ask about someone's gender can be "Is this person a man or a woman" or "are they a man or a woman?". I don't need to go with "What pronouns do they use?". I can explain using the singular "they" is a way to avoid making assumptions about someone's gender but explaining "What pronouns would they prefer to use?" or "What pronouns do they use?" seems too much for primary school students in China.

So I called the publisher, telling them that saying "Is it a man or a woman" is simply wrong. But to my surprise, they told me that they actually consulted this question with some "experts" and native speakers and they all said it was correct. It is just like when you introduce yourself over the phone, you can say "Hi. It is Mark."

My first reaction to that is WTF, what kind of native speakers did you consult with ?!

But is it possible that is correct? I can say "Is it a man or woman" when asked about someone's gender.

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    It's not absolutely incorrect but it could be considered impolite; singular "they" would be better and I think would be the usual today - "are they a man or a woman?" See this question on English Language and Usage
    – Stuart F
    Nov 28, 2023 at 15:55
  • I’d say that although the usage isn’t all that colloquial, it’s not exactly wrong either, and it may be suitable as a simplification to be easier for young learners to understand. Nov 28, 2023 at 15:58
  • @StuartF It's definitely weird to use singular "they" in a question that explicitly assumes binary gender. It's alright to assume sometimes, but why word it like you're being inclusive? Nov 28, 2023 at 16:57
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    My main takeaway from this is those publishers are a waste of time. Firstly because if they really did actually consult this question with some "experts" and native speakers, the implication is someone who's not a native Anglophone dreamed up the text in the first place. Secondly because it also sounds as if they needed some reassurance that the usage was in fact valid (a pretty worthless reassurance, given that nobody introduces themselves with uncontracted It is Mark). But assuming they were aware it was at least potentially "iffy", why on earth did they use it at all? Nov 28, 2023 at 16:59
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    @Qiulang邱朗: Seriously, man, how do you expect me to respond to that? I just used it, didn't I? :) But here's a usage chart. Nov 29, 2023 at 2:33

4 Answers 4

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This is poorly expressed and contextually very unlikely.

Mike says he is waiting for his dad's friend. There are plenty of natural follow-on questions: "How long have you been waiting?" or "Can I wait with you?" but asking about the sex of the friend is frankly weird. More likely Guoguo would be uninterested in the friend, and want to talk about something else.

Okay, so Guoguo wants to know if Mike's dad's friend is male or female. He (She?) could ask "Is your dad's friend a man or a woman?". Or perhaps "Are they a man or a woman?" (using singular "they") It's not acceptable to use "it" to refer directly to an adult human.

But this is a highly simplified text for children. It doesn't pretend to be natural English.

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  • I don't think that young kids would say: Is your dad's friend a male or female.
    – Lambie
    Nov 29, 2023 at 19:52
  • No, me neither. But they might say "Is your dad's friend a man or a woman?" (If that is what they wanted to know). This is a highly simplified text for children. It doesn't represent how children naturally talk.
    – James K
    Nov 29, 2023 at 20:47
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Yes, this is completely normal and idiomatic usage.

Some similar and related examples:

  • Who's at the door? - It's our new neighbour.

  • I'm having problems with one of my students. - Is it Charlie again?

  • Will it be a male doctor doing the examination?

  • Who's looking after the café today? - It's Jenny and Sue in the morning, and then Richard after lunch.

  • It was Margaret Thatcher who first put climate change on the international agenda.

Note that you still use "it", even when the gender is known. Even if all the students are boys, it would be wrong to say "Is he Charlie again?". "It" can also introduce more than one person: "It's our new neighbours" would also be fine.

All these instances are, one way or another, identifying someone. If you refer to the person (or people) in other ways, you will use the appropriate pronoun:

  • Who's at the door? - I don't know who it is, but I'll tell them to go away.

  • Will it be a male doctor doing the examination? - Yes it will. He'll come and meet you here before you go into the operating room.

  • Is Helen playing the part of the countess tonight? - No, it's one of the understudies, but she's doing a great job.

Asking about a newborn baby, it's quite traditional to say "Is it a boy or a girl?". If you look at Google images for "it's a girl" or "it's a boy" you will find a ton of cards!

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  • Perfectly normal when the gender is unknown. The whole 'Is it a boy or is it a girl?' thing starts with Brian Jones. He was the first heterosexual pop star to wear costume jewellery, off-stage and on. At the first of several drug-bust trials in 1967 he wore a navy blue Mod suit with bell-bottom trousers and flared jacket, large floppy blue-and-white spotted tie and Cuban-heeled shoes. (Blog) Nov 28, 2023 at 21:30
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    Your examples are totally unrelated to my question, which is to ask about someone's gender, assuming binary gender, "Is it a man or a woman" is just so unnatural. But your words made me realize when the publisher said they consulted with "experts" about it referring to human beings, they probably did not lie. Those experts may just use the examples here to justify their made-up sentence "is it a man or a woman". Nov 29, 2023 at 2:04
  • Also, please notice in the textbook they also say it is the taller man. Your examples may apply to that one. I don't like that one too but I didn't bring it up in my question because I want to focus on "Is it a man or a woman". Nov 29, 2023 at 2:13
  • Is it Charlie? That's a dummy pronoun.
    – Lambie
    Nov 29, 2023 at 19:50
  • @Qiulang邱朗 Gender has nothing to do with the grammaticality of the sentence.
    – Lambie
    Nov 29, 2023 at 19:52
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The pronoun "they", which is usually used to refer to 2 or more people, can also be used to refer to a single person of unspecified gender.

"It" is generally considered to be a pronoun for a thing, not a person. Directly calling someone "it" would sound quite dehumanising. Having said that, there are exceptions when we use "it" in connection with a person. You can ask "who is it?" if you want someone to identify themselves, although this is usually when the person is unseen - for example, on a telephone call, or through a closed door. You could answer this question with "it's me!", or your name. You could explain that someone else is calling on the phone by saying "it's [name of the caller]". But this is an exception because you are identifying yourself not as a "thing" but the person behind something, such as a phone call, an unidentified sound, or a knock at the door.

In your example, I feel you could use either "it" or "they" to refer to the father's friend. They are a person of unknown gender, but it is also the father's friend who Mike is waiting for.

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Is it x? "it" is a dummy pronoun and can deictically refer to something that is being pointed out to someone...

That said, I'd say: Is that a man or woman coming towards us? Not just "is it a man or woman". Then, that is a specific deictic pronoun, unlike it which is a dummy pronoun.

That textbook doesn't use systematic contractions (What's he wearing?) and kids talking would use them...

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    A dummy pronoun is one that cannot be replaced by a noun phrase, but here "it" refers to "your dad's friend" - it's not a dummy. Not all "is it X?" questions use a dummy pronoun - "is it raining?" has "it" as a dummy pronoun since "it" doesn't refer to any particular thing. On the other hand, if you are given a present and ask "is it a book?", that "it" is just a regular pronoun referring to the present. In "is it a man or a woman", the "it" has a contextually explicit referent - the person we are talking about. Nov 28, 2023 at 16:27
  • @NuclearHoagie I never said that all "is it x" questions have dummy pronouns. However, in Superman it is: Is it a bird or a plane? And that is just like this. "It's a bird, it's a plane, no, it's Superman" is the proper quote.
    – Lambie
    Nov 28, 2023 at 16:33
  • I think it's probably axiomatic that if you can replace it by that in an utterance, it can't be the dummy pronoun. It's fine to ask Is that a bird or a plane? in the Superman example, but you can't do that with the first word in this very sentence, where it is definitely a "dummy". Nov 28, 2023 at 16:38
  • The Superman thing should be "it" where it is a dummy pronoun. My comment was that in the OP's dialogue, "that" should replace "it" a dummy pronoun. Ergo, that would just be a pronoun.
    – Lambie
    Nov 28, 2023 at 16:44
  • "Is that a man or woman coming towards us?" This wouldn't work since they didn't see anyone approaching until the next line.
    – Laurel
    Nov 28, 2023 at 16:54

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