9

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?

  • 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
  • Very good question indeed! – English Student May 21 '17 at 23:52
6

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.

  • 1
    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
  • 2
    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
  • What does PC stands for? – sigod Sep 11 '17 at 6:13
  • For someone who claims to be non judgemental, you surely sounds judgy against PC. No one asked about your frustration against it and there's no need to needlessly include it several times in your answer. Nice job making it the topic political for no good reason. – Vun-Hugh Vaw Feb 5 at 17:52
1

Using "he" or "she" to refer to an animal of known gender, like a pet, is easy to understand, as you say.

Using a gendered personal pronoun to refer to an indefinite animal, or an animal of unknown gender, is just another kind of personification. There are no absolute rules about it. In my experience, people tend to use "he" more often than "she," similarly to how people often use masculine pronouns rather than feminine ones for indefinite human beings unless thinking specifically about a role associated with women. But there is nothing wrong with using "she" either.

The actual physical sex of the animal is only important if it is salient to the speaker. Otherwise, it might be ignored. For example, even someone who knows intellectually that only female mosquitoes suck blood might say something like "got him!" after swatting an annoying mosquito, and people don't always use feminine pronouns for personified worker bees even though in real life, worker bees are all female (example: Bee Movie).

Obviously, words that by definition can only refer to animals of one specific gender have to take the appropriately gendered pronoun. A speaker will not use the word "she" to refer to an animal that has been called a "bull", or the word "he" to refer to an animal that has been called a "hen". But words like this are not as common as gender-neutral species words.

I've seen some statements suggesting that some animals are more often associated with certain genders—I think the example was dogs as masculine, cats as feminine—but I think this is a simplified description that you should be careful not to take too dogmatically. (Oh, I just noticed John Lawler's comment descring this idea of "covert gender" as something that was discussed by Whorf.)

The thing is, I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone said something like "If I had a cat, I wouldn't let him wander outside." There is nothing wrong grammatically with this sentence either. So any kind of tendencies that exist for gendering entire species are very weak and can be overridden by all sorts of contextual details or just habits of the speaker.

And there are many animal species with no clear gender associations, like frogs and toads.

I would say at their strongest, the gender associations of certain animal species would be no stronger than the gender associations of the sun and the moon, and these certainly aren't entirely fixed in English usage. Nowadays the sun is usually personified as masculine, and the moon as feminine, in part likely due to influence from the grammatical genders of the associated words in Latin and the Romance languages, but the opposite associations are still possible:

These examples are maybe a bit unexpected for an English speaker, but at least to me, they don't seem at all like mistakes or even particularly glaring pronoun choices. In fact, I think it's a bit less jolting to me than the use of the feminine for a generic indefinite singular animate (as in something like "A good student pursues her studies diligently, while a bad student procrastinates"), which is pretty familiar as a minority usage pattern.

My point here is that the sun and the moon are personified relatively frequently, and even with all of that opportunity for a clear gendering tendency to develop, the tendency is still not overwhelmingly strong. For other things that we talk about less often, you can imagine the tendencies will be even weaker.

Here is a paper I found about the topic of this kind of gender in English:A Diachronic-Synchronic Review of Gender in English, Jesús Fernández-Domínguez

It has a list on page 57 and I decided to look to see if there were any classifications that seem too simplistic to me. There were some: I think sun (as I mentioned earlier), river, summer, winter, love, time, war and maybe death can be personified as feminine (death certainly can in more extended metaphors or fiction; it's harder with short references because people are very familiar with the masculine personification of death and are likely to think of it by default), despite Fernández-Domínguez classifying them as neuter or masculine, and I think moon (as I mentioned earlier), earth, spring, world, virtue, peace, liberty can be personified as masculine, despite Fernández-Domínguez classifying them as neuter or feminine. People would probably expect one gender more than the other, and might be surprised at the use of another, but it is quite possible grammatically, and I don't think it would even necessarily be surprising depending on the context.

Now, certainly some people might disagree with me about some or all of the above, but I imagine some people would agree to at least some extent. Overall, the use of gender in English personifications is quite flexible compared to an average European language with grammatical gender.

0

There is no rule in modern English that animals should always be referred to as 'it', though some grammarians of yesteryear did recommend the generic use of 'it' for animals. In general, when gender is not known, modern grammar textbooks and style guides advise the use of he/she for adult humans and older children, and it when referring to very small children or animals. When gender is known, we should use 'he' or 'she' as applicable, and this is now extended to even the smallest children. Through some pioneering use, especially by pet owners and in documentaries on TV, it has been extended to animals as well!

Authorities don't know who perpetrated this crime, but he/she has left enough evidence for a future identification.

The candidate shall not write his/her name anywhere in the answer book, the teacher said.

The little child shouted for its mother (if its gender is not known to the speaker)

The little child shouted for her mother (the feminine pronoun is used even though 'child' is a gender-neutral term, because in this case the speaker knows that it's a little girl)

Robert's cat can recognise its master's voice (speaker does not know whether the cat is male or female)

Robert's cat can recognise his master's voice (knows that it's a tom cat)

Note: (1) If it is known whether the animal is male or female (at least to whoever is making the statement, if not necessarily apparent to the listener) then there is nothing wrong with referring to it as he or she as applicable -- for example, narrators on National Geographic and Animal Planet documentaries routinely do it, as in:

This bear is preparing herself for a long hibernation.

The bear was annoyed when we invaded his domain.

In both cases the non-expert viewer is unlikely to have identified whether the bear on TV is male or female, but knows it now, after hearing the above commentary, because the narrator is presumed to know for sure. In fact it is scientifically preferable to use 'he' or 'she' as applicable where known, because individuals of many animal species are distinctly male or female, and there are significant differences between the two. (However...)

(2) If the animal is zoologically of indeterminate gender (as can occur in certain species) or if the speaker does not know due to lack of expertise (or lack of opportunity for proper identification) it is preferable to use the pronoun 'it' in the interests of accuracy, because using either 'he' or 'she' in such cases can mislead the listener into believing that the speaker actually knows whether the animal is male or female.

protected by Mari-Lou A May 21 '17 at 23:27

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

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.