Why is it common in English to address animals as "it"?

It's not an inanimate or abstract object, they have a gender and they're alive.

A chair, idea, tree, rock, etc are an "it", but why does English speakers address a dog, cat, bird, fish, etc as "it"?

Isn't male the "default gender" in English?

  • 1
    What gender is that dog over there?
    – Mitch
    Oct 9, 2016 at 12:38
  • 1
    It's Male. Edit: oh I see what you did there... @Mitch
    – shinzou
    Oct 9, 2016 at 13:22
  • But "it" here is the gender and not the dog... @Mitch
    – shinzou
    Oct 9, 2016 at 15:37
  • For humans, it is difficult to tell the gender of an animal (but easy for other humans). If you know the gender of the animal it is customary to use he or she for the animal. When it is unknown, you use 'it'. For humans, in English, when gender is unknown, you don't use 'it', you use 'that person' or something similar or try to find out. 'Why' is just the way it is. One could just as well ask why some languages insist on gendering every single word even those obviously without distinguishing sex characteristics. Why? It's just the way it is.
    – Mitch
    Oct 9, 2016 at 21:57

1 Answer 1


No, unlike many other Indo-European languages, current English has no default gender. Grammatically speaking, English does not have gender at all—the only gender that English marks at all is natural gender (sex).

When the natural gender of a living being is known, it is customary to refer to that being using pronouns that reflect that gender; for male beings, we use he/him/his, and for female beings, we use she/her/her(s). As you say, animals do have natural gender, and there is nothing to stop you from using the corresponding gendered pronoun. When referring to your own dog, for example, most people will use gendered pronouns. In many cases, however, you simply don’t know what sex an animal is at first blush.

With some animals, the distinction is fairly easy to make—a buck with its antlers looks quite different from a doe, for instance—and figuring out the right pronoun tends to be easy. With other animals, however, it’s not so easy. I for one would have absolutely no clue whether a cat or a turtle or a grizzly bear is male or female just by looking at it.

In those cases, you can either choose to use a gendered pronoun and then have a 50% chance of being right; or you can skirt the issue altogether and use it, which is sex-agnostic.

The same is true of human infants, incidentally. Babies all look the same (quoth the bachelor), and it can be quite impossible to tell whether a clothed baby is a boy or a girl. Until you find out, you can dodge the risk of mis-gendering it by calling it it (cf. this question).

Historically speaking, English did of course have genders, including using the masculine as the default gender; but while some still consider using he to refer to being(s) of unknown sex to be neutral, many people nowadays consider this to go against the notions of equal rights. Some have started using she as the default gender instead for obviously animate beings. When dealing with (non-infant) human beings, where it would be depersonalising and degrading, many now use singular they.

With animals, the notion of ‘depersonalising’ is rarely an issue, and it remains the more common way to get around the issue. That is, the ‘default gender’ for non-human entities is no gender, whether the entity in question has a natural gender or not.

  • 3
    You usually know perfectly well where to look for a grizzly's gender. You just don't want to get that close ;)
    – Helmar
    Oct 9, 2016 at 11:33
  • 2
    Calling a baby or animal "it" sounds very bad when translating to my language (Hebrew), it's like you don't care that it's alive.
    – shinzou
    Oct 9, 2016 at 11:33
  • 3
    If translation turns something normal in English into something bad in Hebrew, then it is not the fault of English or of Hebrew. It is a poor translation.
    – GEdgar
    Oct 9, 2016 at 12:20
  • 1
    @EdwinAshworth That's true; but I'm not sure I'd call that default. I'd think of that rather as marked gender, the gender being here used specifically to mark the affectionateness. Oct 9, 2016 at 15:14
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet Personally, I would go to some lengths to avoid referring to a baby as it. "It" does not come over at all well to "its" parents. I speak as a father and grandfather of a few. Expressions like now, am I looking at a little boy or a little girl? are much preferable in my book.
    – WS2
    Oct 9, 2016 at 15:35

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