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Gender of nouns


Gender is given very little attention to by EFL teachers in the classroom. It is thought to be too elementary to be attended to properly. In fact, gender relating the person/thing to "he," "she" or "it" does not excite much interest because purely grammatical means for its expression are absent. Gender is inbuilt in the nounal semantics, that is why some nouns such as boy, man, husband have "he" in their semantic structure; girl, woman, wife have "she" in their semantic structure; that is, "he" and "she" are inbuilt in the meaning of names of human beings of a certain sex and only English person nouns are subject to gender expression. All other nouns, names of inanimate things and names of living beings of a lower organization, such as birds, animals, insects, etc. are associated with "it" as part of their semantics.

There are traditional cases of association of certain nouns with certain genders.We can use "heshe" for an animal if we know the animal's sex and feel sympathy or interest. E.g. Go and find the cat and put him out.

"She" can be used for a country, a city in myths, poetry or politico-economic contexts. E.g. England is proud ot her poets. "Nature" is "it" in a neutral context and "she" in an emotionally coloured text. E.g. If Nature is to be commanded, she must be obeyed.

"Ship," "plane," "boat," "hovercraft" are referred to as "she" ("shuttle" - "it"), e.g.What a lovely ship! What is she called?

"Car," "automobile" are referred to as "it," however, they, especially those in which the speaker takes a personal pride, can be referred to as "she" or "he" by men or women respectively.

"It" may be used for person nouns if we mean not a person but the social position, status, rank. E.g. She's the managing director and looks it.

"It" is closely associated with the absence of individuality and is often used scornfully.

There are various ways of indicating the belonging of the noun to the feminine gender as opposition to the non-expression of the feminine gender is understood as belonging to the masculine gender. They are: suffixes, compound words of a certain structure, different words.

The suffixes -ess, -ine, -ix, -ina, -ette mark the feminine gender:

administrator administratrix

czar czarina

executor executrix

heir heiress

hero heroine

host hostess

tiger tigeress

testator testatrix

usher usherette

The suffix -er marks the masculine gender: widow widower. Gender is expressed in compound words with the second component -man, -woman, -boy, -girl, -lord, -lady, -cock, -hen:

salesman saleswoman

washerman washerwoman

cashboy cashgirl

landlord landlady

peacock peahen

The masculine noun "bridegroom" is opposed to the feminine noun "bride."

There are different words for creatures of male and female sex:

man woman

lad lass

brother sister

bachelor spinster

father mother

husband wife

son daughter

nephew niece

uncle aunt

gentleman lady

sir madame

wizard witch

king queen

monk nun

lord lady

Students have to be aware of different connotations of meanings of apparent pairs. Witch/wizard, manager/manageress, governor/ governess, lord/lady, master/mistress and others are not equal in status and meaning in some or all contexts. As a rule the feminine noun differs from the corresponding masculine counterpart not only in the expression of another sex, but has other overtones and even meanings. Here are some of the meanings of the nouns in the mentioned pairs:

lord supreme male ruler; God;

lady woman belonging to upper classes; woman who has good manners and some claim to social position; (GB) used of and to wives or daughters of some nobles;

master man who has others working for him and under him;

male head of the household; captain of a merchant ship; male teacher;

male owner of a dog; the Master Jesus Christ;

mistress woman at the head of the household or family; woman in authority who gives orders to servants; woman school teacher;

woman having regular sexual intercourse with one man to whom she is not married;

governor person who governs a province or a colony or (US) state;

governess women who is employed to teach young children in a private family;

witch woman said to use magic, esp. for evil purposes; (fig) fascinating and bewitching woman;

wizard magician; person with amazing abilities.

To express some male or female animals different words are used. There is often a quartet: the name of the male, the name of the female, the name of the young and the common name.


* Used for a male that has been castrated.


Specific references in the text can clearly imply the gender in a given case.

Next day he went walking in the forest. And as he was walking he met a fox, a vixen, a very pretty young thing, gay and giddy like all girls. And the fox saw the cat, and was very much astonished.

"All these years," she said, for though she was young she thought she had lived a long time, "all these years, I've lived in the forest, but I've never seen a wild beast like that before. What a strange-looking animal! And with only one ear. How handsome!"

A Ransome. Old Peter's Russian Tales


A great many person nouns in English can express both feminine and masculine person genders These nouns are referred to as nouns of the common gender, or dual gender, person, parent, friend, cousin, neighbour, student, doctor, teacher, professor, librarian, etc.

If there is no need to indicate the sex distinctions of the person expressed by the noun, it is used as masculine Besides, lexico-grammatical distinctions as the first component of a compound formation such as man/woman, male/female, boy/girl, for birds and animals cock/hen, he/she can be used:

Students ought to be cautious when they choose the first noun. "A nurse" was traditionally treated as feminine, to indicate a man doing this kind of job "a male nurse" should be used. "Engineer" was traditionally meant as masculine, "a woman engineer" is used for a lady. "Boyfriend," "girlfriend" have specific connotations.

Lower animals do not differ from inanimate nouns in terms of gender and will be referred to as "it." If required, the sex differences can be indicated by certain gender markers: she-goat, male frog, he-pheasant.

The speech device enabling us to present lifeless things as living beings is called personification. It is also called "gender of animation." Personification gives nonhuman things the qualities, abilities, or emotions of people. Personification also uses abstract ideas; these abstract ideas are often capitalized.

How rarely Reason guides the stubborn choice

Samuel Johnson

earth took him to her stony care.

W.B. Yeats

In fairy tales animals, fish and birds can be associated with any gender required by the sense. The extracts below are a good illustration of references of names of birds to different genders.


One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he stayed behind for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had never met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.

0. Wilde. The Happy Prince.

The parrot. Polynesia, was sitting in the window looking out at the rain and'singing a Sailor-song to herself . She stopped singing and started to listen

Hugh Lofting. The Story of Doctor Dolittle

But one day when the Princess September went to say good morning to her parrot she found it lying dead at the bottom of its gold cage.

W. S. Maugham. Princess September

September felt her heart go thump, thump against her chest, and she made up her mind to take no more risks She put her hand and took hold of the bird. This he was quite used to, she liked feeling his heart go pit-a-pat, so fast, in the hollow of her hand, and I think he liked the soft warmth of her little hand

W. S. Maugham. Princess September

People object to words for occupations and professions that are marked to indicate sex differences since they think that men and women are not treated in the same way.

Speech and writing that make unnecessary distinctions based on sex are called sexist language. The word "Mr" does not show whether or not a man is married whereas "Mrs" is used for a married woman and "Miss" for a single woman making the distinction of a woman's social position. The term "Ms" was suggested as a compromise.

"He," "him," "his" can refer to a male or a female or to someone whose sex is unknown

The child has lost his toy.

The student paid his subscription fee.

To avoid the use of the masculine marker for someone who may be a female, an article or another determiner can be used instead.

The child has lost the toy.

The student paid that subscription fee.

Sometimes either "he/she" or "his/her" is used.

Every student has to pay his/her subscription fee.

Or: All student fees have to be paid.

There are three possible ways to indicate gender of the noun of a dual gender.

1. When a relative arrives, he will be let in and his arrival will be welcome by everyone.

2. When a relative arrives, he or she (he/she) will be let in and his or her (his/her) arrival will be welcome by everyone.

3. When a relative arrives, they will be let in and their arrival will be welcome by everyone.

The use of "he" in the first sentence is considered sexist; the use of "he and she," etc. is a bit awkward, especially in speech; in the third case "they" is used with a singular meaning which is incorrect, but still quite common, especially in informal English.

The language reflects the situation in society. Societal change and language change go hand in hand. This explains the possibility of one sentence and the impossibility of the other one:

I pronounce you man and wife (not: man and woman, husband and wife, woman and husband), the pronouncement gives a picture of woman as man's possession.

Mary is a divorcee (not: John is a divorce).

Mrs John Smith (not: Mr Mary Smith).

She is John's widow (not: He is Mary's widower).

They indulged in wife swapping (not: They indulged in husband swapping).

"Man" was originally fully generic (Man breakfasts his young;

One man, one vote) but over years it stopped being felt as such and this masculine bias can sound odd to a speaker of English.

"Lady" is used out of exaggerated politeness since a woman of high station and breeding was traditionally meant. Some people dislike to use "lady" because of its connection with class distinctions. To some people "lady" is synonymous with good manners. "Female" is used in an official, scientific or clinical contexts for a person, plant, animal that bears young.

Traditional social roles were formerly expressed by compound nouns with -man or -woman as the second component of the noun. A neutral form for both sexes is preferred by most people now as they object to terms that show the sex of the person who is doing the work.

Traditional male Traditional female Non-sexist neutral

chairman chairwoman chair (person)

barman barmaid bartender

businessman businesswoman businessperson/executive

fireman fire fighter

headmaster headmistress head (teacher)

postman postwoman postie/postal worker

salesman saleswoman salesperson/sales representative

spokesman spokeswoman spokesperson

steward stewardess/air flight attendant


bachelor1 spinster1 unmarried/single man/woman

fiance fiancee partner

mankind human beings

man and wife man and woman,

husband and wife

all men everywhere all people everywhere

boys and girls (as people

an address in a class)


1May have negative associations.


Some words will still be used in the traditional way, such as "fisherwoman" was never thought of.


Look at this rather sexist advertisement for an airline. Change the wording to make it neutral.


Now! Eagle Airlines offers even more to the businessman

who needs comfort.


Let us fly you to your destination in first-class comfort, looked after by the best-trained air hostesses in the world. Any businessman knows that he must arrive fresh and ready for work no matter how long the journey.With Eagle Diplomat-Class you can do just that. And, what's more, your wife can travel with you on all intercontinental flights for only 25\% of the normal fare! Your secretary can book you on any flights 24 hours a day on 0557-465769. All she has to do is lift the phone.


Key: Now! Eagle Airlines offers even more to the business

traveller who needs comfort.


Let us fly you to your destination in first-class comfort, looked after by the best-trained cabin attendants (or cabin staff) in the world. Any business person knows that they must arrive fresh and ready for work no matter how long the journey.With Eagle Diplomat-Class you can do just that. And, what's more, your partner/spouse can travel with you on all intercontinental flights for only 25\% of the normal fare! Your secretary can book you on any flights 24 hours a day on 0557-465769. All he or she has to do is lift the phone.

These words include some that many people consider sexist. Put the words into appropriate pairs with their neutral alternatives:

cabin attendant spinster

man-hours human beings

unmanned single woman

air hostess mankind

unstaffed person-hours


Key: air hostess cabin attendant, man-hours person-hours, unmanned unstaffed, spinster single woman, mankind human beings.


Make this letter neutral.

The Manager

Frinstowe Engineering Ltd


Dear Sir,

I am a spinster aged 22 and am seeking employment. I saw your advertisement for part-time workers in the Globe last week. However, your 24-hour answering service seemed to be unmanned when I tried it. Could you please send me application forms by post? Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Sally Hewings (Miss)


Key: The Manager

Frinstowe Engineering Ltd


Dear Sir,

I am aged 22, single, and am seeking employment. I saw your advertisement for part-time workers in the Globe last week. However, your 24-hour answering service seemed to be unstaffed when I tried it. Could you please send me application forms by post? Thank you. Yours sincerely,

Sally Hewings (Ms)

Russian gender differs from English gender.

All Russian nouns are referred to the masculine, feminine or neuter genders; person nouns due to the natural sex distinctions of creatures they express, non-person nouns because of the form of the noun ending in -a, a consonant, -o, -e, etc.

There are nouns of the common gender in the Russian language, such as , , , , , etc. There are also nouns of the masculine gender which are widely used to denote both males and females: , , , , , , , etc. Some of them have the corresponding feminine noun: , , , but they are used to denote the wife of the person of the profession or are used in the colloquial style.

Russian adjectives, pronouns, numerals and verbs in the past tense agree with the noun in gender.

m 젠 栠 栠


栠 栠 젠


English adjectives do not change to show gender, possessive pronouns, however, must show the sex of the person they stand for, never the gender of the noun they modify.

m f

Ralph brought his mother some roses ("his" refers in gender to Ralph not to "mother").

f m

Lucy found her brother in the library ("her" refers in gender to Lucy, not to "brother").


To bring in the topic of gender into the classroom arrange a talk about boys and girls. Show pictures or bring samples of toys. For whom are these toys designed?


Discuss basic differences between boys and girls. Are these differences something we are born with or are they bred by society?


How do your mum and dad and your school treat the two sexes? Do you like the treatment?


Do boys and girls differ in their perception of the world? How do boys and girls treat each other?


Write adjectives on the board and ask the class to use them describing the classmates or their photos (in which case there'll be more interest). You may also ask the students to think of adjectives you associate with boys, girls or both. These can be: quiet, thoughtful, noisy, ambitious, gentle, kind, cruel, fast, sympathetic, clever, strong, nice, talkative, better-behaved, hard-working, etc.


Discuss recommendations to the teacher on how to get on with boys and with girls and how to counter sexism in the classroom.


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