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I've been wondering for some time under which conditions the pronouns he/she can be used when talking about animals. I know that they are used when talking about pets (esp. larger ones) and when you know the sex of the animal (as, for example, zoo keepers, vets, etc., generally do), and also often in literature. But when it comes to other contexts, I often don't understand why he/she is used. Are there any rules?

Example: I recently read a report about how to survive in the Sahara desert, and how dangerous some of the animals can be. "Be careful if you encounter the so-and-so snake, He doesn't like to be stepped on." It was just this one sentence, and the source of the text was OUP in a textbook, so I'm sure it wasn't a mistake. And I've come across many other examples that I can't recall now, but that made me wonder...

And I'd also like to know whether there is a tendency for which animals take he and which she as a pronoun. For example frog: If he/she is used, is it usually he or she? Are there any lists or reference books where I could look?

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If your native language is one that has genders for all nouns, this usage may spill over into your English speaking. – GEdgar May 18 '13 at 14:13

No rules beyond the rule of personal preference. Some folks like to indicate whether the person or animal is male or female. Why? Because humans are curious about such things. How many normal human beings wouldn't ask about a newborn dressed in yellow or green Is it a boy or a girl? Only the hopelessly PC who think that it's somehow unfair to burden a fellow human with a sex label that fits. After all, it might be a hermaphrodite, and that question just might embarrass the parents.

Animals that are obviously male or female (you can tell when it's dog or a horse, but not necessarily when it's a snake or a sparrow) can safely be referred to as he or she, but there will be purists out there who'll insist that they're properly referred to as it. That Grammar God speaks to a lot of false prophets, however. Maybe it's the Grammar Devil?

I don't know why anyone would want to grace a frog or any other similarly slimy life-form with he or she. Only animals that you can make friends with deserve that kind of preferential (I'm not a lover of PC) language. If, however, you're a frogologist, then you'd care a lot about whether the frog was a male or female, at least in some cases. So why not use he/she? There's no grammar rule against it, only people's personal judgments about what's right and wrong (absurd,I think) in such cases. Personally, I make my own judgments about this kind of small stuff and don't judge others when they make different judgments. It usually doesn't matter -- except when people say "He's pregnant". Then I wonder what's going on.

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Don't forget good old Hyperolius viridiflavus (the Common Reed Frog), which can switch sex organs! – batpigandme May 18 '13 at 9:53
@batpigandme: I'm obviously not a frogologist! I know, however, that some seafood, e.g. Tilapia oreochromis can change sex during early development depending on the water temperature. – user21497 May 18 '13 at 11:07
Speaking as the former owner of a female dog and current commensal of a male cat, I can verify Whorf's assertion that covert gender exists in American English. People who refer to a dog and don't know its sex (i.e, most people) normally use he, while people who refer to a cat (ditto) use she. It's the same problem as an uncolorcoded baby, but there's no penalty for guessing wrong. – John Lawler May 18 '13 at 16:52

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