I've always used "gender" when I want to talk about whether a person is male or female. But I came across this comment on a similar question here:

Correct usage is "sex" for humans and other animals. "Gender" is for things like connectors and pipe fittings. People are just squeamish about the word "sex."

So which one is more correct and more importantly which one should I use? It would be great if you can base your answers on facts, references, or specific expertise rather than just personal opinions.

Note: I've already seen the question What is the difference between "gender" and "sex"? but it does not answer my question.

  • How does that other question not answer this one? Noting that it exists doesn't make this one not a duplicate.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Mar 18 '14 at 12:04
  • @KitFox: It talks about the difference. I was asking which one is more correct to use. I wanted to also ask about the argument in the comment I quoted. Mar 18 '14 at 12:06
  • Discussing a specific argument is appropriate in a chat room. This shouldn't be posted as a question unless it is broadly helpful. This question doesn't add anything the other question hasn't already addressed, and "more correct" is bogus. You might as well ask whether man or male is more correct. They are two different things, and "correctness" (I assume you mean acceptability of use) depends on context. The differences in context are addressed in the other question as well.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Mar 18 '14 at 12:10

For most purposes, the terms sex and gender are interchangeable. There are not many people who will be confused when met with a box on an immigrations or medical form asking "sex" (although I have seen this answered with a yes/no/rarely (etc.) These people really are confused by the question.) More and more often, this is replaced by a choice: M/F.

For purposes of clarity, the World Health Organization defines sex as referring to either of the two main categories of biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women, as well as most living things. The answer to sex? is male or female (or unknown). Males have male sexual organs, make more testosterone than females, are often larger overall, may be more colorful, etc. Females have ovaries, produce more estrogen, gestate young or lay eggs, may be samller generally, more subdued in coloration, etc.

The WHO lists gender as that which refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. The answer to gender? is masculine, feminine, (or, in the case of language and microorganisms, neuter). Examples of gender differences are, e.g. in the US, women earn significantly less money than men for similar work; in Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not; in most of the world, women do more housework than men; in some countries, women alone are allowed to own land; in others, women themselves are property.

Since the recognition of gay rights, sex and gender have become politicized terms. Still, we have documents proclaiming that "X" does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex (more often than gender), national origin, marital status, age, sexual orientation, military status, genetic predisposition or carrier status, disability, or any other, etc.

A good indicator of the difference between sex and gender is that in language, non-living things have gender. In French, house is feminine (la maison), fire (le feu) is masculine. In Latin, table (mensa) is feminine, field (ager) is masculine, and entrance (limen) is neuter. None of these have a sex. In some Latin words, sex and gender are contradictory: a female poet is still a poeta (masculine), a female farmer is masculine (agricola) and an idiot (idiota) is always masculine.

Therefore male and female are sexual categories, and masculine, feminine and neuter are gender categories.

  • It looks deliberate, but I think you forgot to mention that those Latin words are all masculines that follow a generally feminine declension—so they're doubly tricky when referring to female beings. Mar 16 '14 at 9:28
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    First of all: the Latin for house is domus feminine, not “domum neuter”. Second: people who write “yes” when asked the question “sex” are not confused by the question. They are trying to be funny.
    – fdb
    Mar 16 '14 at 10:38
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    @fdb - When I ask patients, "Are you sexually active" and they blush and say, "no, I usually just lay there", they are not trying to be funny. I actually review these forms with people. So don't be so cock-sure. You are right about domus, though (where was my mind?) I'll change that to limen. Mar 16 '14 at 10:54
  • All right. But you did mention a "box on an immigration form".
    – fdb
    Mar 16 '14 at 10:57
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    @fdb - and I would bet dollars to donuts that immigration officials don't find that funny, either. Who would joke on an immigration form? Mar 16 '14 at 11:03

We need to decide whether you are talking about “correctness” or “usage”. Up until maybe 50 years ago “gender” was a technical term in grammar and linguistics. We spoke about the grammatical gender of nouns in languages like Latin, French, German. The question of whether a person (or animal) was male or female was a question about the person’s or animal’s sex. Then, sometime in the 20th century people decided to use “sex” as an abbreviation for “sexual intercourse”. We started talking about “having sex” and so forth. This meant that the grammatical term “gender” was annexed to mean what used to be called “sex”. So in modern usage “gender” is about whether you are male or female, and “sex” is about what people do with each other. That is the current usage. Is it “correct” English? That is a matter of debate.

  • Where did I say it was verb?
    – fdb
    Mar 16 '14 at 11:03
  • The terms for gender have widely expanded in the last decade to reflect what people wish to be referred to as. We cannot reject the changes in usage as being incorrect. They are what they are. Otherwise we'd all be speaking Olde English and complaining about the youth of today ruining it.
    – David M
    Mar 16 '14 at 12:55
  • 'in modern usage “gender” is about whether you are male or female, and “sex” is about what people do with each other.' Not always, as per the WHO (see Susan's answer) and the AMA (amamanualofstyle.com/view/10.1093/jama/9780195176339.001.0001/…), among others. In academic/scientific writing, "sex" (biological gender) vs "gender" (psychological/cultural/identity or orientation) can be a very important distinction.
    – nxx
    Mar 16 '14 at 15:08
  • Distinction can also be important in a colloquial context - if you refer to someone as being of male "gender" (biological) but they gender-identify as female, for instance.
    – nxx
    Mar 16 '14 at 15:09
  • For the history of these words the entries "gender" and "sex" in the OED are very informative.
    – fdb
    Mar 16 '14 at 15:22

Neither is more correct than the other. They merely mean different things.

Sex refers to whether your chromosomes are XX or XY (male vs. female).

Gender is an attitude. Man vs. Woman. It is your identity, not your chromosomal makeup (or external genitalia).

This is why someone who has a "sex change" really has gender reassignment surgery. This is why someone who wishes to live their life as the opposite of their sex is transgender and not trans-sex.

The comment you saw is someone who is not clear on the difference. The usage in pipes is merely a convenient nomenclature. It is ridiculous to say that gender is only to be used on inanimate objects.

  • 3
    That's probably true of politically-correct newspeak, however, it's not widespread usage and you should not assume that anyone you are speaking to understands it that way.
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 16 '14 at 21:29
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    It's very widespread usage. The shift in politics and news reporting has brought these issues quite to the front. (Gay marriage, etc.) But, regardless of that, language changes. Calling it newspeak is the equivalent of putting your head in the sand. Otherwise, you must dismiss every new term as newspeak. Should we pack language in an airtight case, and stick in the deep freezer? How about we start calling Asians Orientals, again? Political correctness is a reality. Get used to it.
    – David M
    Mar 16 '14 at 21:36
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    I seem to recall a time not so long ago when transsexual was the precise term used instead of transgender.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 17 '14 at 18:00
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    @oldcat the terminology has been adapted to reflect the various states of being. Transsexual is really someone who has had surgery. Transgender implies a lifestyle decision.
    – David M
    Mar 17 '14 at 18:04
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    Which was Ben Voight's point, that this is a new set of terms being pressed on the language by pressure groups, for good or ill. Who can say if it will survive in practice?
    – Oldcat
    Mar 17 '14 at 18:07

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