Recently I have heard both of the following sentences:

The previous mayor was a woman, wasn't she?

The mayor is male, isn't it?

These seem to me to bear a gender contradiction here; "the mayor" and "the previous mayor" are both non-gendered rôles, but the people whom I overheard in the pub were quite happily talking about these differently gendered situations, having lived in Britain all their lives.

All I can think is that this is some sort of colloquialism, or there is a difference between "is male" and "a woman".

Are either of these thoughts valid, and is there a genuine grammatical rule here or is it just a confusion caused by the current heatwave in the UK?


Edit: By the sounds of it this was all a product of a good evening's drink and unusually hot weather. The response appears to have been as I would naturally say, that the usage of it was merely a slip of the tongue and that one should use he instead.

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    "The mayor is male, isn't it?" just sounds wrong to me. Was it quite late when you heard that? – Max Williams Jul 19 '16 at 9:31
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    I assume it was mis-spoken or mis-heard. – TrevorD Jul 19 '16 at 9:36
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    @EdwinAshworth I think it sounds wrong because you wouldn’t use they on someone whose gender you knew. At least I wouldn't. – tchrist Jul 19 '16 at 21:41
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    @tchrist It's possible that you don't know the gender of the mayor. If I were in that position, I'd still avoid 'The mayor is here, aren't they?' – Edwin Ashworth Jul 19 '16 at 22:02
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    @EdwinAshworth I would, too, but I can't really explain why. I guess I feel queasy about using generic they with so definite an antecedent. – tchrist Jul 19 '16 at 22:10

As a native speaker, the first example, "The previous mayor was a woman, wasn't she?", sounds right. The second example, "The mayor is male, isn't it?" sounds very wrong, because the pronoun "it" is not used for people in English; rather he, she, or even they can be used to refer to a singular person. So a standard usage in the second example could be "isn't he?" since the speaker assumes that the person was male.

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If the question is, why would someone refer to the the Mayor as 'it', the answer may be that they didn't really.
It is possible that what was heard wasn't 'isn't it', but 'innit'

short form of isn't it. Used at the end of a statement for emphasis:

"It's wrong, innit?"
"They're such a wicked band, innit.

The usage is part of Urban British slang as discussed in this BBC article

for some people, 'innit' is just another tag question, a contraction of 'isn't it'. But kids in urban Britain are using 'innit' to cover a wider and wider range of situations. Here are some examples of non-standard use, gleaned from recent messageboard postings:

"We need to decide what to do about that now innit." (don't we?)

"Now I can start calling you that, INNIT!" (can't I?)

"I can see where my REAL friends are, elsewhere innit!!" (aren't they?)

"I'll show young Miss Hanna round to all the shops, innit." (won't I?)

"I heard he was good in TNA when he was there so he can still wrestle good innit?" (can't he?)

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    'Isn't it' is becoming more common as a general tag-question, in line with French 'n'est-ce pas?', probably in an attempt to make 'innit' more respectable. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 19 '16 at 10:28
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    I've heard "isn't it" as an invariable tag question from Indian speakers - I think it's fairly widespread in Indian English. I immediately assumed that the second question was in Indian English. – Colin Fine Jul 19 '16 at 11:06
  • @ColinFine I did see one source claiming that Indian and Pakistani youth had introduced the usage into Urban British slang, so I wouldn't quibble. – Spagirl Jul 19 '16 at 11:12

Your second example sounds very strange; I suspect what was actually intended was either "The mayor is masculine, isn't it? [because the feminine term is mayoress] or "The mayorship is male, isn't it? [because only men can be mayor]".

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    Mayoress more often mean's a mayor's spouse. It's an ambiguous term. – jejorda2 Jul 19 '16 at 13:45
  • To downvoters: whether the sentiment is sexist or mistaken is beside the point. The question is about the English used. – Tim Lymington Dec 4 '16 at 23:34

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