If we are talking about animate objects, like people and animals, defining a gender is easy in most cases.

But for inanimate objects, like a chair, a tree, the sky and so on, gender can be a built-in language feature or can be absent from a language.

Is grammatical gender applicable to English or is it not? I am asking whether a chair has no gender at all or is it of neutral gender?

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    it used to be but isn't now. Most people nowadays would refer to any inanimate object as "it", commonly referred to as the neutral or neuter pronoun. So it's of neutral gender IMO, rather than having no gender at all, but your mileage may vary (which is why I didn't post this as an answer). Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 10:15
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    "If we are talking about animate objects, like people and animals, defining a gender is easy in most cases." I don't think that's really the case for grammatical gender. For instance, should the grammatical gender of "cat" be male or female? There are both male and female (and neutered!) cats, after all. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 14:45
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    Back in early medieval times when English was a language with declensions, grammatical gender was clearly marked. But English lost most of these declensions during the late medieval period and we have now only the vestiges of grammatical gender. projects.iq.harvard.edu/cb45/pages/…
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 17:52
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    languages tend to become simpler over time, for example in Persian there is no "he" and "she", I don't know if thats good or not! maybe sometimes the gender be removed from English too.
    – Ahmad
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 7:02
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    Loosely related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/2484/… Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 11:38

9 Answers 9


In general, English does not have much of a gender system. We divide things into male people, female people, and everything else.

Men and boys use the masculine pronouns he, him, his. Women and girls use the feminine pronouns she, her, hers. Everything else uses the neuter pronouns it, it, its.

But there are a few odd parts to how we use English in practice. Animals are often called he or she if we know their gender and it matters to us. For example, our pets are very personal to us, so we usually call them by masculine or feminine pronouns, not neuter ones. Animals that aren't so "personal", we usually call by neuter pronouns even if we know the sex - for example, you might say, "There's a cow in my front yard. Why is it there?" even though we know that a cow is female.

Ships are traditionally called "she", but this is seen as increasingly old-fashioned. Sometimes this is extended to other objects if they seem to have a personality, mostly vehicles, but it's rare.

There are a few nouns in English that are specifically gendered - actress, waitress, editrix, chairwoman, and so forth - but we seem to be moving away from using these words in favor of neutral forms like waiter and editor. In the case of words like chairman/chairwoman, there's still an argument over whether a female person holding the office of chairman should be called chairwoman, chairman, chairperson, or just chair.

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    Countries are also occasionally considered female, but only in public or diplomatic speech, e.g. "United States and her allies."
    – LawrenceC
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 13:44
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    And my favourite female noun; executrix, for a female executor.
    – Jamiec
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 15:17
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    And then, there is our sun (he), and our moon (she), as in U2's song: They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by a moon, you know you don't see him when she walks in the room. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 16:29
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    The specifically-female words like "actress...chairwoman" have no grammatical gender in the sense that other languages' nouns have it. English does not have different articles for masculine/feminine/neuter nouns (like German der/die/das). It is only in pronouns that English truly has grammatical gender. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 16:50
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    I actually agree with you two that the "gender" of "actress" is not quite the same as "grammatical gender", but for purposes of explaining it to a learner of English, I think it's worth including in a general discussion of the topic, because these nouns do require specific pronouns, if not specific anything else.
    – stangdon
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 20:52

Grammatical gender is, generally speaking, absent in modern English. Like you mentioned, living things can have gender (though not all do), but inanimate objects do not.

A small exception: occasionally, when a person really, really loves an object, they will refer to it using gendered pronouns (he, she, him, her) rather than genderless pronouns (it), but this is really a case of personification. For example, when a guy really loves his car or his boat or his house, he may say things like "yeah, she'll go 125mph" or "I gave her a shine last weekend" or "she's really beautiful in the spring".

  • In my experience it's about convention more than obsession. I have a friend who names all his cars with some female name, even if it's just another car. Similarly, lots of people refer to cars or boats in general as "she". I met a guy in Nevada who made a point to name his motorcycles male names. "This is Bob. We hang out when I want to get away from all the girly nonsense at my house." And, to be extra pedantic, inanimate objects that represent something with a clear gender are often called he or she instead of it. Like a statue, player avatar, animated character, etc.
    – MichaelS
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 13:51
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    I find myself using gendered terms when referring to things with voices. My GPS is "she" because it's at it's factory default setting of American Female voice. It's not that I really love it, it's that it sounds female. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 21:02
  • @MichaelS "This is Bob. We hang out when I want to get away from all the girly nonsense at my house." And that doesn't sound at all obsessive? Not even a tiny bit?
    – Pharap
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 13:58
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    Gendered pronouns still do not have a grammatical gender, they just reference the natural gender of the antecedent. It changes nothing about their grammatical use.
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 19:50
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    @MichaelS No, it really isn't. In those cases, the speaker is anthropomorphizing the object, giving it a natural gender. The grammar has still not changed.
    – KRyan
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 0:00

In the World Atlas of Language Structures, English is listed as having three genders, just like German and Russian.

However it is only present in third-person singular pronouns, and male or female pronouns are almost always only applied to animate creatures according to their biological or self-identified gender (namely humans and occasionally animals, especially pets), apart from rare exceptions for fetishized or anthropomorphized personal possessions, or obsolescent usages involving countries or ships.

So it might be more useful to make a clear distinction between the vestiges present in English and the full-fledged three-gender system of German or Russian.

  • Not so, as there are nouns and adjectives with gendered forms e.g. actress/actor, blond/blonde.
    – Era
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 20:06
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    -1. Three genders is the correct analysis of English, even though the system is not as extensive as German or Russian. It is not absurd. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 20:28
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    As suggested, I've removed the "this seems absurd" phrase and added a final one-sentence paragraph instead. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 2:06
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    I down voted because that line made an otherwise clear and concise answer not so good. I may also have misread your tone. Anyway, I retracted my down vote. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 2:07
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    @Era, is "actress" really a gendered noun in the grammatical sense? Consider German Mädchen which refers to a female human being but is a neuter noun, and can be associated with the pronouns "es" (it) or "sie" (she). Or "cow", which is a female animal but usually associated with the pronoun "it", although "she" is sometimes possible. So one could even argue that all English nouns are gramatically genderless even though some of them refer to beings with biological gender and can be substituted by gendered pronouns. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 2:28

as per WiKi Modern English is not considered to have grammatical gender now days, although Old English did have it.

What @ghostarbeiter wrote in their answer is not exactly true. I do not know about German, but Russian language have 3 gender which, just like English are identified by masculine, feminine and a third-person pronouns ON(he), ONA(she) and ONO(it).

The issue with English as opposed to some other languages, is the way to identify the gender belonging of things referenced. For example, 'a pencil' or 'a pen' - you can not identify the gender of these words by simply reading them. You need the whole sentence to determine the underlying meaning applied to the words.

By contrast, in the Russian language, most of the time, the very spelling will help you identify the gender with a few exceptions. "a pencil"=>"Karandash" is a he where "a pen"=>"Ruchka" is a she. Most feminine nouns would end on sound/suffix "a", "chka" , "va" etc., where masculine nouns would have a harder endings like "ov","or", "er" "ich". Even personal names are spelled differently using prefixes (rare) or suffixes (most common) to indicate gender.

Last names are great example here. In English a common last name 'Scott' is the same for both a man and a woman. Most last names are masculine regardless. In Russian, a common last name "Ivanov" will be spelled "Ivanov" for a man, but "Ivanova" for a woman, even if it is the same family; meaning the husband will spell "Ivanov" as his last name and the wife will use "Ivanova" as hers on any and all official documents.

Many names for things will also spell out indicating gender preferences, regardless if it is an object or a being. Example "Bulochka"(a small white bread) will be a feminine but "Hleb"(simple translation is generic bread) is obviously masculine. However coffee is commonly given a masculine definition (he) even though by all other rules it should be a third-person singular(it).

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    I know that Russian has three genders. My point was that it seems exaggerated to say that English also has three genders. It is not a helpful description of English. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 15:57
  • sorry misunderstood. but it also difficult to overlook that English does have three genders semantically. English have three pronouns that are used to identify object gender. what English luck is a specific identifiers for object names that can be used to identify gender without use of pronoun. similar to how it is done in Russian.
    – vlad
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 16:00
  • No problem. You explain well and could contribute at russian.stackexchange if you have time. Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 16:03
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    Welcome to ELL! While this is an interesting reply to another answer, it doesn't seem to answer the question itself very directly. Can you edit to make it self-sufficient? Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 16:18
  • Nathan Tuggy >> if you mean me :-), I am sorry but I meant to post a comment under ghostarbeiter post, not an answer. stackexchange some times works in funny way for me. I can certainly edit the post but I am not a language aficionado so I usually refrain making an absolute statements about grammar. also I think my post does answer part of the OP question, if indirectly.
    – vlad
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 16:43


English varies a select few words only to refer to things that have natural genders, that is, genders recognized in the real world. These variations on these select few words does not change their grammatical meaning.

For example, each of the following is grammatically valid, and basically identical as far as the grammar is concerned:

Sue talked to herself.

“Sue” is a common female given name in many English-speaking countries, so some woman with that name is talking to herself.

Sue talked to himself.

Here, “Sue” is apparently the name of a male; A Boy Named Sue perhaps. English doesn’t particularly care, it just uses “himself” because the pronoun is referring to someone that is male. The meaning of the sentence is completely unchanged; even if Sue were actually a woman, this sentence would just be inaccurate, not grammatically wrong.

Sue talked to itself.

Here, “Sue” is something with neuter gender—that is, something that is sexless and (usually) inanimate. This would be very insulting, in most cases, if Sue were a human being, but if, say, Sue is the name of a robot, this sentence could be perfectly appropriate. But the rules of English grammar don’t actually care; the rules of English grammar allow for the construction of insulting sentences.

And, in fact, English grammar is perfectly willing to let you use “herself” or “himself” when discussing this robot named Sue. By choosing that name, its creators likely wanted people to think of it as more of a person than a machine and thus deserving a gendered pronoun, and maybe they’re big Johnny Cash fans so they find it amusing to refer to their robot named Sue as male.


It might not be 'officially' accepted, but I see genders in English for inanimate objects quite often. You may call it 'informal' if you are too much of linguist to accept it!

Cars are often feminine
Pets and animals are called by pronouns 'he', 'she'; Tom is 'he', but a bitch is 'she'
Countries are feminine
Our planet earth is feminine
Ships are feminine

One of the references say -

Infrequently, nouns describing things without a gender are referred to with a gendered pronoun to show familiarity. It is also correct to use the gender-neutral pronoun (it).

The examples follow:

I love my car. She (the car) is my greatest passion.
France is popular with her (France's) neighbours at the moment.
I travelled from England to New York on the Queen Elizabeth; she (the Queen Elizabeth) is a great ship.


In my language - Swedish - we use two genders called neutral and real. Like German and Latin languages (and unlike English) our genders have a large effect on the forms all nouns take: neutral has different indefinite articles than real has, the definite forms (a Scandinavian peculiarity) work differently depending on gender and so on.

However, we also have words that correspond directly to e.g. the English actress/actor (skådespelerska/skådespelare), and we have separate personal pronouns for he/she/it.

Still I think in general we consider our language to have two genders, since neutral and real is about how articles and rules apply to all nouns. A word like "actress" isn't seen as having a female form, rather it is a separate word in its own right, with the meaning "female actor".

You can look up "actress" in a dictionary, and it will have it's own entry, right? A word form dictated by gender would rather not have its own entry, but be understood as a different form of a base word which you could find in the dictionary.

Also I think, if a language has gender, and a word has a particular form in that gender, the general rule would be that that word should always, without exception, take that form for that gender. If a person said it otherwise, people would assume that that person didn't know the language properly. I.e., if someone called Elizabeth Taylor an "actor", it would just sound weird. (maybe that's the case? I'm not a native English-speaker)

Edit: forgot to add my conclusion - I'd say English has a single gender

  • In English it's English, Swedish, Latin, German... starting names of languages with a capital letter. You might know this, but all learners might not. So, in general, we try to use commonplace capitalization and punctuation around here. Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 22:46
  • These days, some younger female "actors" do call themselves actors and not "actresses". This is a movement that I hope continues to spread with English speakers.
    – Walter
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 1:11
  • @AlanCarmack: thanks for pointing out the capitalization - edited my post. I knew this, but got sloppy when writing.
    – TV's Frank
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 22:56
  • Very useful and interesting to find out the Swedish system because if the existence of worlds for male or femaile things means that the grammar is deemed gendered then Swedish must have 4 genders - neutral, real, masculine and femine. That plus the observation about singe or double dictionary entries seems pretty conclusive to me., Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 11:46

Simply put, no. Most languages have grammatical genders defined through articles. English however, only uses "The". For example, German has multiple gender-connected ways of saying "The", being "Der"(male), "Die"(female and multiple entities), "Das"(genderless). All of them mean "The", but they're used in front of different words. The chair, for example, would be Der stuhl. Stuhl is defined as a "male" word in German. English has no such system.

  • isn't "The" a qualifier not a gender identification? I do not think "the" in English is used in the same way as "Der" or "Die" in German. it seams that some languages have a gender identification prefixes where other use a specific spelling of the word to do the same. German, Italian , Spanish are examples of first, English , Russian and many European narratives are example of second types. in English "The" is used to indicate a specific target where an "a" is used for generic reference. "A Pen" is any pen but "The Pen" is a specific pen that speaker want to indicate importance of
    – vlad
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 13:15
  • "The" is the definite article in English. In the languages I know where gender is a crucial thing, gender affects the article - different gendered nouns have different articles respectily. However, the gender comes from the noun - the gender of the noun decides what the article looks like, how the word bends ("bend" is translating literally from the Swedish term - I don't know if there's a proper English term for the way words change as cases or genders change.) Besides that, I'd say "The" works pretty much the same as "Der/Die/Das" in German.
    – TV's Frank
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 23:01
  • But yeah, I think saying that articles define the noun is too simplistic. The gender is a part of the noun, article or no. I'd say it's the other way around - the gender of the noun decides which article you use. In German, there is only one proper definite article for the word Mädchen, and that is das. You can't change das to der or die, and in that way change the meaning of the word Mädchen, all you'll accomplish is illegal syntax.
    – TV's Frank
    Commented Mar 18, 2016 at 23:11
  • So in German are there, for example, professions with masculine (or feminine) gender names that would retain that gender when talking about women (or men) who work in it? Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 11:51

One remnant of a neutral gender in English is that monosyllabic neuter nouns don't change between single and pleural... according to an old edition of "Teach Yourself Norwegian", which presented this rule for Norwegian along with the comment that it is the same as in English. Examples: "sheep", and "fish" (although "fishes" is also used).

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