Genders in English – Are animals and things he, she, or it?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

Unlike most other European languages, Modern English has no grammatical genders. When we speak about an inanimate object, we always refer to it as “it”. For example:

This is a stone. It is very heavy. (correct)
This is a stone. He is very heavy. (wrong)
This is a flower. It is red. (correct)
This is a flower. She is red. (wrong)

Although animals are animate, an animal is also traditionally referred to as “it”, unless you want to emphasize its sex or your personal relationship with it:

I saw a stray dog. It was large. (correct)
I saw a stray dog. He/she was large. (see below)

In this case, since the animal’s sex doesn’t matter and we have no personal relationship with it, we use “it”. Note, however, that it is customary to refer to all animals as “he” or “she” in certain circles, especially among animal rights activists and vegans. Nevertheless, most people would use “he” or “she” (depending on the sex of the animal) only when referring to an animal with whom they have a close personal relationship:

The dachshund is a member of our family. She is always so curious. (correct)
The dachshund is a member of our family. It is always so curious. (correct)

Both examples are grammatically correct, but the first one sounds more affectionate.

Sometimes things are referred to as “she” to show affection. It is traditional for ships to be a “she”:

What a ship! She’s been cruising the sea for fifty years and still looks like new.

Nevertheless, it is not wrong to refer to a ship in an impersonal manner as “it”. Similarly, countries and cars are sometimes referred to as “she”:

I love Great Britain. She is beautiful. (correct, affectionate)
Let’s try out our new Ferrari. She’s ready for it. (correct, affectionate)

However, don’t overdo it. Even if you really love your Ferrari, referring to it always as “she” may make you sound pretentious or snobbish (if the mere fact that you have a Ferrari doesn’t do that already).

This article was based on my guide to the most common mistakes in English, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?

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