Being German, I am used to getting information about the gender of a sentence's subject in the same sentence:

Meine Freundin mag Bücher.

Here it is immediately clear that it's a female friend of mine who likes books.

In English, however, many nouns do not imply a certain gender (which makes a lot of things so much easier):

My friend likes books.

How is such a sentence perceived by a native English speaker? I'm particularly interested in the case where such a sentence is part of a story, where the reader is likely to visualize the sentence's action mentally.

Personally, I tend to imagine the subject as being male (this might be due to male profession titles and pronouns being the de-facto standard in German texts, even if the texts are not gender specific). This leads to surprises in situations like this one:

My friend likes books. She owns many of them.

Do native English speakers experience a similar surprise? (Note that this works for both genders, i.e. a female reader might be surprised if "He" owns many of them) If not, what happens instead?

Edit: Several answers point out that the same issue exists with other attributes (age, race, ...). However, in my experience, these attributes are either not fixed at all during a story (so we're fine to imagine them anyway we want) or comply with the stereo-types we have for the story's cultural environment (so the chance is high that we imagine the "right" thing). Gender, on the other hand, is almost always fixed for a story's characters, and very hard to guess in a more modern and western setting.

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    When all is said and done, this isn't really a question about English language usage. It's about preconceptions, albeit with particular relevance to languages that aren't strongly gender-typed. So I'm voting to close as "not constructive" – FumbleFingers Feb 16 '12 at 21:52
  • This might be better asked at cogsci. but there would need to be editing to make it suitable for there. – Matt E. Эллен Feb 16 '12 at 22:01
  • It’s far from unheard of to use ‘girlfriend’ to mean a friend who is female. Girls certainly do it, and sometimes guys. And ‘guyfriend’ would be used if the expectation is female. The only problem is that ‘girlfriend’ means a girl whom you’re dating, not just a pal you’re aren’t sexually involved with. – tchrist Feb 16 '12 at 22:20
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  • @MattЭллен: Thanks for the hint, I didn't know about cogsci. – Florian Brucker Feb 17 '12 at 7:10

Generally, we make mild assumptions or none about gender unless we are given other clues. If someone says

My friend likes books.

we would probably know the gender of the person who was speaking. If male, we would assume a male friend; if female, female. It would be faintly surprising but not disconcerting to learn otherwise.

Some people writing stories (or making movies or TV commercials) will concoct elaborate set-ups to force us into preconceptions about gender (or race, etc.) with the intention of pulling a surprise "reveal" somewhere along the line. This is seldom the stunner the writer seems to think it will be, and falls under the category of "cheap tricks." So cheap, in fact, that you can almost always spot the gag coming. If you see a motorcycle rider in full leather with a face-concealing helmet on, who rides into a scene and does something only an action hero could do, it's almost a given that she will pull off the helmet afterwards and shake out a full head of silky blond hair.

This is all very boring. And predictable.

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  • I wrote a blog post on TV plot ideas once -- too long ago to remember where -- where I said that I thought it would make a clever scene to have a motorcyclist in full leather and face-concealing helmet roll in, do something macho, and then the rider takes off the helmet and, surprise!, it's not a pretty girl after all but a rugged-looking guy. – Jay Feb 16 '12 at 19:56
  • Absolutely agree. But I don't know if it counted as a "cheap trick" when I wrote how come my Mum can't suppose me to do my homework? - sometimes I just like playing with people's preconceptions! – FumbleFingers Feb 16 '12 at 21:02
  • @Jay "Show them 2 + 2 and convince them it's 5 and then surprise! the truth is it's 4." --Teller (of magic team Penn & Teller) on his basic magic formula – Dan Ray Feb 16 '12 at 21:38
  • "It would be faintly surprising but not disconcerting to learn otherwise" -- that's basically what I was looking for. Thanks! – Florian Brucker Feb 19 '12 at 19:01

There are subtle assumptions one makes not only about gender but class, employment, ethnicity, and so on. If I wrote

The noted Catholic University of America professor spends most of the day seated in the archives, except of course for the scheduled prayers to Mecca. After long hours of research, it is off to home-sweet-home in Anacostia, to gather the day's pile of letters addressed to her: Dr. Xiaomei Chang.

it is clear this individual is quite unusual: a devout Muslim who is a professor at a Catholic university, someone who is a famous academic but lives in an impoverished neighborhood, and one has a Chinese name, which one might not expect of a resident of that predominantly African-American neighborhood or of a Muslim professor in the U.S. Considering all this, that the professor is female instead of male as many would assume is a rather small surprise.

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Basically agreeing with Robusto, but let me add:

I suspect we all make "conventional assumptions" about a person referred to based on the context. Gender would be an obvious point, but also age, race, weight, and no doubt many other attributes.

Like, suppose you read a short story that began, "The sniper fired two shots at the prime minister." What do you picture in your mind? I immediately see a male, probably somewhere between 20 and 40 years old, and physically fit. When I read "prime minister" I think "Britain" even though many other countries have PMs, and so I see the sniper as a white Englishman.

On the other hand, suppose the story starts, "Terry was playing with Barbie dolls in the sandbox." Do you picture Terry as a 40-yeard old man? Probably not.

Or, "The bagpipe player paused for breath." Do you picture a 10-year-old Nigerian girl? Or an older Scotsman?

"The basketball player slammed the ball through the hoop." How many see a short Jewish girl?


There are those who say these sort of assumptions are sexist and agist and racist and all that. But really, many of these stereotypes exist because in our common experience, there are some things that men are just far more likely to do than women, or that old people are more likely to do than young people, etc. Sure, there are some number of female construction workers and white rap singers and teenage college professors, but not that many, so the conventional assumptions will usually be right.

As Robusto says, you can use such assumptions to set up a surprise reveal. But this trick is so over-used that, for me at least, the usual reaction is, "Oh, we were supposed to expect X. How clever. I ... am ... so ... surprised."

More often, if you want to avoid confusion, I think you should be sure to quickly point out any deviation from standard assumptions. If the nurse is a man, don't just write, "The nurse entered the room." Write, "The male nurse ..." If the jockey is 6 feet tall, write, "The surprisingly tall jockey mounted ..." Etc. Then the reader is prepared and it's not jarring later when you reveal it.

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