Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

So, my boss comes in, railing that "English is a stupid language!" Since this is pretty much a thrice-weekly occurrence 'round these parts, I barely raised an eyebrow, and waited for him to continue.

"Mary just wrote to tell us that she's back from maternity leave, and I want to congratulate her and ask whether she had a girl or a boy, but I can't do it without calling the child an 'it'!" I blinked, then confirmed that yes, he believes the it in "Is it a boy or a girl" is the impersonal pronoun, the same word you'd apply to an apple or a house.

Is it the 'thing' pronoun, really? Or is it just a placeholder of some sort? I used to believe the latter: I gave the boss a mini-lecture about "it's raining" and the dummy subject pronoun. He wasn't convinced, however, and now he's got me doubting too. (Harumph. I really should know better than to listen to the boss.)

I'm not asking about politeness, here; the former title was to be taken somewhat facetiously. I'm wondering about the grammar: what role is that "it" playing in that sentence? Is it a personal pronoun (and thus the infant has grounds for feeling offended) or a dummy pronoun (and thus those who perceive a politeness issue are just misunderstanding the grammar)?

share|improve this question
46  
Does your boss also hesitate to say 'it's me!'? –  Anonym Mar 21 at 15:36
16  
It often works, however. One can always say "the/your baby"; pronominalization is not required by law. –  John Lawler Mar 21 at 15:42
4  
Just show your boss this: google.com/search?q=it's+a+boy+it's+a+girl&tbm=isch –  Digital Chris Mar 21 at 15:58
49  
Infants are notoriously touchy about such things. –  Sven Yargs Mar 21 at 16:17
4  
It doesn't seem to have been mentioned yet, but what is so bad about using it for children? All Germanic languages that have gender use neuter for children, and they are anaphorically referred to as it in all of them (including English). That's the whole point of the word (as opposed to boy and girl). First example to mind, from the song 7 Seconds: “And when a child is born into this world, it has no concept of the tone of skin it's living in”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 23 at 20:50

6 Answers 6

up vote 32 down vote accepted
  • "Is it a boy or a girl?"

I'm wondering about the grammar: what role is that "it" playing in that sentence? Is it a personal pronoun or a dummy pronoun?

1.) The word "it" is the grammatical subject -- we know this because of the subject-auxiliary inversion in the interrogative clause.

2a.) Depending on the context, it could be reasonable for a person to consider that the word "it" is a dummy pronoun in a truncated it-cleft construction. (note: A dummy pronoun does NOT have an antecedent.)

2b.) Depending on the context, it could be reasonable for a person to consider that the word "it" is being used in an anaphoric relation to its antecedent which is the baby.

LONG VERSION:

For #2a: In some contexts, the word "it" could be considered to be a dummy pronoun in an it-cleft construction, one that has been truncated and is in the form of an interrogative clause.

A dummy pronoun does not have an antecedent. (Note that a dummy pronoun doesn't have an antecedent because it is not in an anaphoric relation -- that's a reason why it is called a "dummy pronoun".)

It is truncated because the it-cleft's relative clause has been omitted, and this is acceptable when that relative clause can be recovered from the context. This is what a non-truncated version could be:

  • "Is it a boy or a girl that she has given birth to?"

A possible declarative clause version of that it-cleft could be:

  • "It is a boy/girl that she has given birth to."

A non-it-cleft declarative version could be "She has given birth to a boy/girl".

Here's a related excerpt from the 2002 reference grammar by Huddleston and Pullum et al., The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, page 1417:

Truncated it-clefts: omission of relative clause

The relative clause of an it-cleft construction can be omitted if it is recoverable from the prior discourse:

[19]

A: Who finished off the biscuits?

B: I don't know; [it certainly wasn't me].

The underlined clause [it is 'bracketed' -- f.e.] here can be analyzed as a truncated it-cleft, equivalent to It certainly wasn't me who finished off the biscuits.

In the OP's post, there is this:

"Mary just wrote to tell us that she's back from maternity leave, and I want to congratulate her and ask whether she had a girl or a boy, but I can't do it without calling the child an 'it'!"

I blinked, then confirmed that yes, he believes the it in "Is it a boy or a girl" is the impersonal pronoun, the same word you'd apply to an apple or a house.

From the above context, a third person (or the OP herself) could have asked the boss a non-trunctated it-cleft such as "Was it a boy or a girl that she had?", though that version sounds awkward when compared to the truncated version "Was it a boy or a girl?"

For #2b: In some contexts, the word "it" could be considered to be in an anaphoric relation, where its antecedent is the baby. For instance, if the baby was already the topic of discussion.

Grammatically, the 3rd person singular neuter pronoun ("it") can sometimes be used to refer to a baby. Here is an excerpt from a 2005 textbook by Huddleston and Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar, page 103:

The neuter pronoun it is used for inanimates, or for male or female animals (especially lower animals and non-cuddly creatures), and sometimes human infants if the sex is unknown or considered irrelevant: The baby grunted again, and Alice looked very anxiously into its face to see what was the matter with it.

The acceptability for either #2a or #2b as an explanation will usually depend on the specific context of the surrounding discourse. That's the way it is in today's standard English -- context is king.

.

MORE INFO: Perhaps some more general info about the 3rd person singular neuter pronoun ("it"). There are some special uses for it, where those uses for "it" are not anaphoric (or at least not clearly so). These include:

  • Extrapositional and impersonal it -- e.g. "It's ridiculous that they've given the job to Pat."; "It seemed as if things would never get any better."

  • The it-cleft construction -- e.g. "It was precisely for that reason that the rules were changed."

  • Weather, time, place, condition -- e.g. "It is raining."; "It is five o'clock."; "It is very noisy in this room."; "I don't like it when you behave like this."

  • It as subject with other predicative NPs -- e.g "It was a perfect day."

  • It in idioms -- e.g. "What's it to you?"; "Beat it, kid"; He made a go of it."

The above info and examples are borrowed from the 2002 CGEL, section "Special uses of it", pages 1481-3.

share|improve this answer
7  
I don't think this is correct. The "it" is simply replacing "he" or "she" because the speaker doesn't know what it is yet. There is no extended form similar to, "Is it a boy or a girl that she has given birth to?" The extended form would be something more like, "Is [the child] a boy or a girl?" –  MrHen Mar 22 at 16:40
1  
@MrHen: thanks for that comment - you've articulated exactly why I haven't gone ahead and accepted this answer, despite it being the only one that actually tries to answer my question. (Thank you for that, F.E.!!) Basically, this is a nice idea, and a possibility I didn't think of, but I'm not sure it's correct. –  Marthaª Mar 22 at 19:15
2  
@Marthaª As to what the "definite answer" would be, or could be, would most likely eventually depend on the actual context (the discourse, verbal stuff such as intonation, and physical clues, and the situation) and the intentions of the speaker. And even then, there could possibly be more than one feasible grammatical interpretation possible. -- This is related to the reason why I originally gave that one possible grammatical interpretation (truncated it-cleft), since a full discussion would take up a real lot of explaining (as you can now see how my post has, er, grown in size). –  F.E. Mar 22 at 19:43
1  
Excellent answer. This is essentially how I would have answered too: It's ambiguous whether it's an expletive pronoun or the "baby animal" pronoun (or an idiom) because the meaning is the same (and non-weird) in any case. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 23 at 0:26
3  
@MrHen: If I compare with my native language Swedish, the dummy pronoun theory sounds much more probable. Our corresponding phrase is "Är det en pojke eller en flicka?", where det (neuter gender) corresponds to it. If that word were a substitute for "the baby", it would be den (common gender), and that is never ever used in this context. –  Hans Lundmark Mar 23 at 18:51

Is it a girl or a boy?

Is highly unlikely to offend anyone but someone who exhibits a combination of speaking poor English and being very obsessed with grammar - while not understanding the concept of grammatical gender.

But if you really want to avoid all risks, why not ask it the way you phrase earlier:

Did you have a girl or a boy?

Which, of course, can still be seen as offensive if the new mom interprets it as a yes/no-question...

Now that the question has changed completely, let me include a short answer to the new question:

No, it is not calling the infant an "it". When I answer to someone "It's me", I am not calling myself an "it", when I say "It was John and Paul who wrote that song", I do not call them an "it".

Actually, for the "it" in "Is it a boy or a girl" to be taken as to refer to the (neutral) gender of the infant, you would have to be addressing someone who exhibits a combination of speaking poor English and being very obsessed with grammar - while not understanding the concept of grammatical gender.

(Yes, that was already there - and it can certainly still serve as an answer :) )

share|improve this answer
5  
There are some who would be less offended to be given non-binary response options. –  Tyler James Young Mar 21 at 16:25
2  
This is all very nice, but it doesn't actually answer the question... –  Marthaª Mar 21 at 20:55
3  
@RyeɃreḁd - "Did you have" means "Did you give birth to". It in no way implies that someone no longer has the baby. –  andi Mar 21 at 21:17
4  
Regardless of the formal grammatical analysis, "Is it a boy or a girl?" is an extremely - extremely - common way of eliciting that information, at least in the USA. A new parent who is offended by that is going to be offended quite a bit for the first few weeks... –  schodge Mar 21 at 22:31
3  
@Marthaª: When I wrote this answer, the title asked whether the it in the question could be seen as offensive. That question is answered by this answer. That the title has now changed to focus on a second question that you asked in your text makes this answer look a bit out of place indeed. To keep insisting that it doesn't answer "the question" after "the question" was changed feels a bit weird though. Especially since the first time you said that, your statement was simply wrong - at that time this answer answered exactly the question in your title. –  oerkelens Mar 22 at 20:08

In short, no, it isn't actually offensive. The simplest way to explain it to your boss is to note that this is just an idiom and the phrase "It's a boy/girl!" is extremely common in English.

The more detailed answer would note that we refer to fetuses of unknown gender as "it" and babies inherit that pronoun until a reasonable guess of gender is possible. In American culture, parents often clothe their infants in colors that signal gender (e.g. blue for boys; pink for girls). Gender specific names also solve the issue.

share|improve this answer
    
So are you saying that the "it" in the question "Is it a girl or a boy?" is, indeed, the third person singular inanimate personal pronoun? –  Marthaª Mar 21 at 20:59
2  
Well, neither a fetus or an infant is inanimate, but otherwise yes. It is when used in sentences such as a pregnant woman saying, "You can feel it kicking." If you knew the gender she could say, "You can feel her kicking." Infants will often receive the same pronoun. You could theoretically say, "Is she a girl or a boy?" even though it makes little sense. This usage fades very quickly and by the time a person reaches adulthood it becomes incredibly inappropriate to refer to them as "it". (Which brings us to the standard gender neutral pronoun debate.) –  MrHen Mar 21 at 21:07
2  
One further note, "it" in this usage is not referring to the gender of the child (i.e., "Is [the gender] a boy or a girl?") because you would use "male" and "female". This is not an established idiom. –  MrHen Mar 21 at 21:10
1  
@Jay, the "it" in "Who is it?" and "It's Bob" is arguably a different word than the "it" in "Put it over there". The former are grammatical placeholders, not shorthand replacements for something that was previously mentioned. I think. –  Marthaª Mar 23 at 6:09
2  
@Marthaª Maybe. But consider, "I found this strange blue object in the parking lot." "What is it?" Versus, "Someone is knocking on the door." "Who is it?" The two constructions seem essentially the same to me. –  Jay Mar 23 at 6:11

I agree that this is not offensive. Babies have been referred to in the neuter gender for years. It's the simplest way to refer to the baby without saying something like, "Is the baby a boy or a girl?", "Is the child a boy or a girl?", "Is he or she a boy or a girl?", or even worse, "Are they a boy or a girl?"

I wouldn't be afraid of making the baby sound like a non-person. I don't believe it would be interpreted that way.

Edit: I also concur that perhaps the statement should be understood as "Is it a girl or a boy that she/you just had?"

share|improve this answer
1  
What part of the big, bold text at the top of my question was hard to read? –  Marthaª Mar 21 at 22:50
3  
@Marthaª maybe you should rephrase the title. Exactly what did you mean by borderline offensive? –  Brian J. Fink Mar 21 at 23:18
2  
@Marthaª Hey, that's offensive to all HTML purists! The text at the top may be big, but it's not bold at all! –  Mr Lister Mar 22 at 15:52
    
@BrianJ.Fink: the title is not the question, just as the headline of a newspaper article is not the article. If you only read the title, you cannot possibly know enough to answer. (However, I did just rewrite the title, because I'm tired of people who cannot read.) –  Marthaª Mar 22 at 16:10
4  
@Marthaª: It is your fault if the title and the question don't match. The confusion is understandable -- especially considering the original incarnation of the post. –  MrHen Mar 22 at 18:16

I think in this context 'it' is actually referring to the term of 'boy' or 'girl'. Similar to if someone said, "What is your name? Is it Joe?" The 'it' in this sentence is not calling the person an it but referring to their name. It in the context of the initial sentence is a place holder for the sex of the child.

I think it is much more awkward when talking about the baby in utero whose sex is not yet known. Do you say 'they' or just pick a place holder sex of 'he' or 'she' until it becomes known?

share|improve this answer

Is it offensive? Do they mean anything in particular when they say it? No. It's just what people say when they are enquiring as to a baby's sex. It's like asking whether the thank in thank you is a verb or not.

As an English as a Foreign Language teacher, I teach students that "Is it a boy or a girl?" is one of the first questions they should ask, because they need to know the child's sex before they can start a conversation using the correct gender. That's really all there is to it.

share|improve this answer

protected by kiamlaluno Mar 26 at 17:00

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.