In the song "Blowing in the Wind" by Bob Dylan, there's a verse that reads:

Yes, and how many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

My question is, why he used "she" for a dove? What about other animals and other non-humans? Is there a general rule?


1 Answer 1


The reason he refers to the dove as "she" is actually very simple. It's because this is poetry. Lyrics don't always follow grammar rules and conventions.

In everyday English, the correct pronoun for an animal is "it", if the sex of the animal is unknown. If the sex is known, you would use the same pronoun as you would when referring to a human, "he" or "she", although you could still use "it".

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    Dylan may have gone for 'she' in this case because he's talking about the dove sailing on the sea like a ship, and ships are always referred to as 'she'.
    – ssav
    Mar 16, 2015 at 16:22
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    I'll disagree with ssav. When anthropomorphizing animals, gender is optional when referring to the species rather than individuals. A common standard is to use "he" for fierce or strong varieties, and "she" for the pretty and the weak. Rampant sexism, but there it is. Traditional folk music (Dylan's background when he wrote this) commonly referred to birds as she ("Oh, the cuckoo, she's a pretty bird, she sings as she flies"). Doves are small and pretty, so he used "she". Mar 16, 2015 at 16:59
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    @WhatRoughBeast I think you're on to something, but I'm not sure "pretty and weak" is the precise categorization. Typically male=>war/fighting and female=>peace/love and a dove is a traditional symbol of peace, like "hawks versus doves" in the political arena.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16, 2015 at 20:46
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    Why Dylan chose it is certainly subjective unless we ask him, and I think your answer covers the language part of the question very well. I think it's helpful to speculate a little in the comments though just to give some insight into how using he or she with an animal might be interpreted by folks fluent in English.
    – ColleenV
    Mar 16, 2015 at 21:07
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    @WhatRoughBeast I'm not saying you're wrong; I'm saying that my interpretation is Dove->Peace->Feminine. Doves aren't particularly weak or pretty to me. Peacocks are pretty, but they are masculine. I might call a vain man a peacock, but not a vain woman. I don't think it's particularly sexist, it's just a cultural association. Kali is neither pretty nor weak ;)
    – ColleenV
    Mar 17, 2015 at 17:17

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