The Gender of Nouns

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The gender of nouns plays an important role in the grammar of some languages. In French, for instance, a masculine noun can only take the masculine form of an adjective. If the noun is feminine, then it will take a different form of the same adjective – its feminine form.

In English, however, nouns are not in themselves masculine or feminine. They do not have grammatical gender, though they may refer to male or female people or animals:

the waiter is very prompt ~the waitress is very prompt
the lion roars at night ~the lioness roars at night

These distinctions in spelling reflect differences in sex, but they have no grammatical implications. For instance, we use the same form of an adjective whether we are referring to a waiter or to a waitress:

an efficient waiter ~an efficient waitress

Similarly, the natural distinctions reflected in such pairs as brother/sister, nephew/niece, and king/queen have no consequence for grammar. While they refer to specific sexes, these words are not masculine or feminine in themselves.

However, gender is significant in the choice of a personal pronoun to replace a noun:

John is late ~He is late
Mary is late ~She is late

Here the choice of pronoun is determined by the sex of the person being referred to. However, this distinction is lost in the plural:

John and Mary are late ~They are late
John and David are late ~They are late
Mary and Jane are late ~They are late

Gender differences are also manifested in possessive pronouns (his/hers) and in reflexive pronouns (himself/herself).

When the notion of sex does not apply — when we refer to inanimate objects, for instance — we use the pronoun it:

the letter arrived late ~it arrived late

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