Nouns do not have genders in English like they do in French or German. Our nouns are neither grammatically male, female, or neutral, nor so-determined based completely on the ending of the word. This is something that makes the concept of learning gendered languages (like French or German) particularly difficult for native English speakers.
That doesn’t, however, mean that English doesn’t differentiate (show the difference) between the genders when it comes to talking about people, or that we don’t have genders at all! That said, you may be surprised to learn that there are actually four noun genders in English: masculine, feminine, neutral, and common.
(But don’t worry, if you already know that nieces are female, uncles are male, tables aren’t alive, and love is has no gender, you’ll be fine!)
Masculine, Feminine, and Neutral Nouns
Here is it: People or animals that are male are always masculine nouns. People or animals that are female are, likewise, always feminine nouns. If something is inanimate (doesn’t move, is not alive), you don’t know if it’s male or female, or it doesn’t matter either way (in both situations), then it’s a neutral noun.
Some good examples:
- She (my sister) goes swimming with me in the mornings.
- He (the boy) washed his (the boy’s) dishes after dinner last night.
- It (the chair) was moved into the kitchen.
- Did you catch it (the bee)?
Words without Genders / Common Nouns
Words that can be either male or female are called common nouns. Teachers, humans, children, cats, etc. are all examples of common nouns. But what pronoun should you use to refer to one of these nouns?
“If any student has a problem, __________ (the student) may send me an email.”
Would you put in “he”, or “she”, or “he or she”, “one” or “they”?
The worst option would be to use to masculine “he” because this certainly genders the student. Besides that, you are free to choose one of the last three options. It makes sense to include all the students by using “he or she”, keeping the students neutral by using “one” or by using the singular “they”.
A Word About –ess in Job Titles
Though I did mention (say briefly) above that genders in English aren’t based on word endings, there is, of course, an exception to this.
When referring to some old-fashioned occupation (job, career) titles, you can tell if the person you’re speaking about is a man or a woman (like the -in ending in German) by looking at the end of the word.
Take a look at the word actor versus actress. An actor is a man, and the -ess ending shows that you’re talking about a woman who acts.
For example, “Brad Pitt is an actor and Angelina Jolie is an actress.”
Other job titles that take this ending scheme (pattern, plan) are:
- Steward/ Stewardess (now called ‘Flight Attendant’)
- Waiter/Waitress (now called ‘Servers’)
- Prince/Princess (okay..still called ‘Prince/Princess’)
There are also professional titles that have never been gender specific. For example, you would never say an artistess– it’s just artist. Or you wouldn’t say authoress, but rather just author.
A great thing about any language is that it changes over time and English certainly has, too. Words come in and out of fashion, and usage changes. Using noun genders in English is starting to fade (disappear, go away), with the “masculine” form no longer being used to describe anyone of any gender that performs that role.
This de-gendering (is that a word??) also makes things neutral in order to avoid promoting (supporting, encouraging, perpetuating) gender assumptions or gender stereotypes that currently exist in our society. For example, people usually assume (believe to be true) first that a doctor is a man and that a nurse is a woman.
In the past, we would have felt the need to be more specific by saying “female neighbor” or “male teacher” but, 1) why does it matter if the neighbor/teacher is male or female and, 2) you can use a pronoun (he/she) in the next sentence and it will be clear anyway that your neighbor is female or your teacher is male!
What do you think about gendered words? Do you like the singular “they”? How does your language handle genders? Give us a shout in the comments below and let us know!
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Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, yoga instructor, and learned a lot about genders in English from writing this blog!
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