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Is that normal to regard a beloved object (an animal, a car, a book) as he/she? If yes, what gender should be used in this case?

One comment in this question touched the tendency to humanize things we love, but it was never upvoted properly, so I decided to ask a it as question.

I'm Russian and here gender really matters. In Russia calling my friend's dog as "it" may sound as insult. And calling a dog, which is of a male gender, "she" is a mistake.

BTW, in Russian "England" is a "she". And "United Kingdom" is an "it" :)

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I don't think this is anything to do with grammatical gender, in the sense that this is common across Europe. Grammatical gender is a formal property with (generally) no affective (i.e. emotional) component. The use of animate pronouns for animals and a few inanimate objects (chiefly vehicles) is affective. –  Colin Fine Apr 15 '11 at 11:12
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This made me think of a Saturday Night Live skit with Alec Baldwin. He and another guy are either stand on a boat or on a pier. They start talking about a ship saying "She's a good ship" or something like that. They continue to talk about all kinds of things(a watch from a father, a jacket, etc) and referring to all of them as "she". Then one of them pulls out his wallet and shows the other one a picture of his daughter, to which the other guys say,"It's beautiful" –  Kevin Apr 15 '11 at 16:23

4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In English, gender pronouns are formally used only for representations of animate beings that actually exhibit a physical gender: people and animals. Any inanimate object (or asexual lifeforms like bacteria) would be an "it," by default.

Of course, a few nouns sometimes receive the feminine pronoun. This is customary with ships and boats, as well as sometimes with nations or geographic features (the sea is often referred to with a feminine gender). This isn't required, and, in fact, most people usually refer to those nouns with "it," not with the feminine pronoun.

Additionally, individuals will sometimes personalize an object, such as a car, and assign it a gender. However, that is always a personal affectation and is not representative of the generally accepted usage. Even if your friend has named his beloved car "Eddie," you are not committing an offense to refer to the car as "it" instead of "he."

It is generally acceptable to refer to an animal as "it," particularly if the animal doesn't exhibits any recognizable or outward physical indications of gender.

That's less true if it's a specific animal you are familiar with. I.e., if you're meeting a friend's dog for the first time, it would be appropriate use "it" until you had determined the dog's gender. However, if you continued to refer to your friend's dog as "it" even after you had learned the dog was male (and thus the pronoun "he" would be used), then your friend might find that odd and impersonal. And if you referred to you friend's male dog as "she," you would likely be corrected.

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I would like to add that, unlike many other languages (I know of German, French, Italian, Spanish, and now Russian) English makes every noun gender-neutral. I don't know if it's Celt influence (don't know anything about that language) or something else. –  Joshua Nurczyk Apr 15 '11 at 13:29

The gender pronouns tend to be given to things which display personality. This obviously includes people, and extends to pets, and can also apply to inanimate objects such as cars or boats. I don't believe it's anything necessarily to do with how much the owner cherishes the item (for example, you would never refer to a book, or a poster or a phone as a 'he' or 'she'). If I were to see a horse, for example, I would use it, but the owner who cares for it everyday would see a personality in the horse and refer to it by he or she. Similarly for a car or boat.

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In my native German, all nouns have one of three genders (male/female/neutral) and that makes things a bit easier.

In English, you often hear a car referred to as "she", like

Fill her up

at the service station.

But so far, I have not been able to work out any hard and fast rules for other objects or animals.

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That construct of "Fill her up" is almost exclusively used in the imperative. "Give 'er here" (i.e. Give that thing to me ) is another example. –  Chris Cudmore Apr 15 '11 at 14:17

I guess this comes down to what the owner thinks of the object.

If it's a dog, there is a gender to it. So then you should use the gender if you know it.

Some people name their car, so then they might speak of it as a "he" or "she" if they like.

There are no rules to this in English I think.

In languages with clear genders it's easy to use the gender of the noun. (ex: In Norwegian "dog" is masculine, so it's easy to call all dogs "he" until you know the gender.)

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It's not necessary that a car be named for its owner to refer to it as "she". –  Colin Fine Apr 15 '11 at 11:10

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