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In a long text about a foraging ant, would it be correct to refer to the ant always as "she" instead of "it"? For example,

She wanders aimlessly until she finds a pheromone trail.

A foraging ant is always a female, so technically it would be correct. However, wouldn't that seem odd to the layperson?

The ant in question is not anthropomorphized at all.

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    Can you explain how this is being used? If it's in a formal paper, it may be better to use "it" but if it's in an informal setting, "she" may be appropriate. – Catija Mar 19 '15 at 23:00
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    For the OP's question, I think Yes. – David Washington Mar 20 '15 at 8:28
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Here is an excerpt from The Ants, the monumental, 732-page reference on every major topic in the scientific study of ants, by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson, two of the world's leading authorities on ants:

The Epiritus forager hunts a great deal in small crevices within the soil. Because of the tightness of the passages, she usually encounters the prey in front. The ant immediately crouches and freezes, pulling the antennae completely back into the scrobes that line the sides of her head. The mandibles remain closed. Even though the prey (a collembolan or small centipede) may be very close by, the ant never moves toward it. Instead, she remains perfectly still for periods of 20 minutes or longer, waiting for the prey to step on her head. Then, with a sudden upward snap of her mandibles, she impales the victim on the long apical teeth. [p. 565]

In formal settings, it is perfectly normal and expected to use the pronouns he, she, her, and him to refer to non-human animals when their gender is known. No anthropomorphism is implied.

See also the Chicago Manual of Style.

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In my opinion you automatically anthropomorphise the ant as soon as you call it "she". It does, to my ear, endear the reader to the ant to a certain degree. After all, an owner who is particularly close to their dog will often refer to the hound as "he" or "she" rather than the onlooker's "it".

That said, that is maybe the desired effect.

An encyclopedia reference will likely use "it", since this is a creature we're talking about. I scanned the Wikipedia entry for "ant" and found only one reference to "she" and several to "it".

Hardly conclusive either. After all, David Attenborough regularly anthropomorphizes creatures as he observes them living their lives and endearing them to the viewer.

In short, it wouldn't sound out of place to me (the layperson) to use "she", but some thought must be given to the nature and purpose (scientific, entertainment etc) of the text or work in which the gender pronoun is used.

  • This means there is no significant correlation between using "it", and not knowing the gender of the animal? For example, if an encyclopedia reference talks about any ant, the gender might be unknowable. However, if it talks about the queen, or about a forager, the gender of the ant is known. – vsz Mar 19 '15 at 22:52
  • I think you're right. "She" when we talk about a specific female ant and "it" for a generic/undetermined one. – JMB Mar 20 '15 at 6:46

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