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Use of “it” and “its” for people and animals

I’m an Italian working in an English-speaking company. In school here they usually teach us to refer to animals using the it pronoun. Something like (i.e. talking about a dog):

It’s really nice.

I see many people using he or she also for animals. What’s the correct way to use it? Should I use it only for inanimate things?

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possible duplicate of Use of "it" and "its" for people and animals; also see linked questions 1 2 3 4 5 –  jwpat7 Oct 11 '12 at 12:33
Also questions 6 7 8 9 10 –  jwpat7 Oct 11 '12 at 12:48
@tchrist, feel free to fix all of them! –  jwpat7 Oct 11 '12 at 12:59
@Napolux, Who is your audience for what you're writing? –  JLG Oct 11 '12 at 13:16
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marked as duplicate by jwpat7, MετάEd, Barrie England, Andrew Leach, Daniel Oct 11 '12 at 13:17

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

If you know a creature’s gender, you use he or she. If you don’t, then you use it. Sometimes this is useful for disambiguating.

A cow produces milk for her calf, but people drink it, too.

That rooster’s infernal cockle-doodle-do is going to get him consigned to the soup pot.

A hen won’t lay eggs if she doesn’t have a rooster around.

My garbage was dumped over by a mother bear and her two cubs two nights ago.

The bull moose appeared right in the middle of my path, so I had to go around him.

In all those cases, the gender of the critters is a given, so it makes sense — and is useful — to use a gendered pronoun to refer to them. Notice how in the first sentence, if you replace her with its, things begin to sound weird and ambiguous.

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One other comment: if you don't know the creature's gender, you can use either him or her in place of it. For example: The neighbor's cat was meowing at the door, so I put out a saucer of milk for her. Or: That squirrel ran right out in front of my bike! I almost hit him! Generally speaking, people don't get up in arms if you happen to use a wrong-gendered pronoun when talking about an animal, particularly when the correct gender isn't known for certain. –  J.R. Oct 11 '12 at 13:57
OMG! Gendered pronouns! How inutterably not PC! Every one of those pronouns should be "THEM"! Feminist linguists (of both sexes, mind you) tell us that the proper way to say "A mother wants her child to be a successful adult" is "A mother wants their child to be a successful adult". It's nonsexist and we can't guess that the mother is actually female. She may be an amoeba or a piece of plankton. (PC logic.) –  user21497 Oct 11 '12 at 14:12
I like to use it for all persons of unknown, indeterminate, and insignificant (babies) gender. Very egalitarian, I think. Jefferson would approve. –  user21497 Oct 11 '12 at 14:15
@BillFranke You might like to do that, but most people would find such usage jarring or sometimes confusing. You're certainly free to launch personal crusades to change the language, but recognize that that's what you're doing. –  Jay Oct 11 '12 at 14:33
@BillFranke RE not PC: ... or the mother may have had a sex change operatin after giving birth. :-) –  Jay Oct 11 '12 at 14:35
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