In my native language German, every animal has an article. This is understandable, if one wants for example to distinguish a male pig (boar) from a female pig (sow). But if one just talks about the animal in genral, the article is basically at random.

But how is it in English, when there may be the same distinction for animal genders, but for the animal a such there are no articles?

So why for example does one say to a meowing cat She's hungry. without knowing if the cat is really a she?

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    I do not. I will say "she's hungry" only if I can see the animal is female, or if I have been told for example by being told the name. Otherwise I will say "it's hungry".
    – Henry
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 7:00

2 Answers 2


In very general terms, dogs are thought of as male, and cats as female. Where the sex of an animal is known, it will be referred to by the appropriate pronoun. Where it is not, apart from dogs and cats, and possibly a few others, it will be considered male and referred to as he, or as neither male nor female and referred to as it. These, however, are distinctions of usage, not of grammar.

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    I'm afraid the generality expressed in your first sentence has completely passed me by. I've never noticed it.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 7:14
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    It has passed me by too. Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 11:32
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    Whorf noticed it, though, and includes it in one of his essays in Language, Thought, and Reality, where he's talking about overt (i.e, marked) gender systems like Latin or Russian vs covert ones like English. He mentioned optional covert feminine gender for boats, ships, trains, and large artillery pieces as well. Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 14:58
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    Speaking personally, as the former owner of a female dog and the present cohabitant with a male cat, I can testify that people unfamiliar with my dog would usually use he for her, and that people unfamiliar with our cat will often use she. Commented Sep 10, 2012 at 15:00

Following on from Barrie's answer: in everyday English, there is an attempt to be reasonably logical when it comes to ascribing 'false gender' (or guessed gender for animals that could be sexed if one made the effort). We don't have bikes of both sexes (all right, genders!) like the French (une bicyclette but un vélo) or bewildering cutlery as in German where the spoon is masculine (der Löffel), the fork is feminine (die Gabel), and the knife is neuter (das Messer). Ascription of gender in English is really metaphorical rather than haphazard - dogs 'feel' masculine, cats feminine, partly because of their typical characters and behaviours, but also because of general appearances. This is an imperfect approach, of course, as some dog breeds are far more silky and graceful than others, and hence have a more feminine appearance.

This ascribing of gender carries over into obviously metaphorical cases, where a (perhaps begrudging) sentimentality often classes cherished articles as feminine. Cars, boats, planes (especially WW I fighters!) and locomotives, because of their graceful lines or movement, and perhaps their capriciousness and ability to frustrate, are / were often referred to using she rather than the clinically correct it.

We mustn't expect there to be no problems with this convention:

"There's the *Duke of Gloucester!"

"Yes, she's a beautiful locomotive."

(courtesy of The One Show)


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