animal referred to as "she" or "he"? [it]

Discussion in 'English Only' started by juliapoz, Nov 20, 2005.

  1. juliapoz Member

    I have another problem. could you please tell me if animals, pets, are treated as "she" or "he"?. I know that cats and dogs are, but what happens if I have a hamster or a bird, snake, or something more unusual such as a pig, fox, and I consider him / her a part of my family? Shall I say "he is very nice" referring to a hamster or a snake or a fox???
    Thanks a lot!!!
  2. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Never use "it" when talking about an animal if you attach any meaning at all to the damn thing. We also have gender-specific names for most animals, and in my opinion a lot more attention needs to be paid to using them.

    We had an interesting thread on this topic with regard to horses, and the same principles apply to other animals-- especially, and emphatically, pets. I dont' care if we're talking about iguanas, if you know the gender of your egg-laying reptile pet, you'll never go (grammatically or idiomatically) wrong referring to her as she.

    By the way, since you mention foxes, we call the females vixens.
  3. juliapoz Member

    Thank you very much for your answer. So, I understand that every time I refer to an animal, I must use "he" or "she" depending on his gender. But what happens if I don't know his / her gender? shall I refer to him or her as "it"??
    Thanks a lot
  4. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    If you don't know, it's likely the animal isn't a pet or significant in some other way. In that case "it" is okay, and is even common. People with a feeling for animals are on one side of this issue, and people who tend to be a little more indifferent are on the other.

    But in cases where the animal is just some random animal, the issue doesn't really exist. Call it an "it" in that case. When you use the neuter pronoun, you are equating an animal with a thing. This is unavoidable much of the time-- the disagreement comes when an animal means nothing to one person, and a lot to another person. You can sometimes insult people in the process.

    "Of course I shot your damn dog-- it dug under my fence and started killing my chickens. This one here, he was my blue-ribbon rooster."
    "You shot my dog cause he killed a chicken?"
    "My best-of-show champion, three years in a row."
    "I don't care if it won the Indy 500-- it's a goddamn bird!"

    You can see how each speaker differs in how they use the personal pronoun denoting gender-- or just call the animal "it." The result can be tragedy or comedy, depending on how you see "it."
  5. juliapoz Member

    Thanks a lot again. Now I understand everything better.
    Best regards,
  6. nycphotography

    nycphotography Senior Member

    I do be learnin stuff
    John-Paul Miller, NYC
    Yes, if its a pet, or a "fixture" in the life of the speaker, then it has been previously assigned a gender, perhaps by guessing or at random if need be, but in the mind of the speaker, it has a gender.
  7. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I find the conclusion of the last thread, see ffb's post with the link, reflects normal usage and is satisfactory in almost all circumstances.
    I apply it to babies as well.
  8. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)
    I call them all "it" especially if the owner tells me their sex.

    That is apart from my own cats which should always be referred to as "he" and "she".

    Sorry - I'm being a bit flippant. Basically you can always call them "it" but some owners like to humanise their animals in this way, and it is quite normal to hear "he" "she" for pets, and you do hear it even when the sex isn't known (and then it seems to be "she" for cats and "he" for dogs, but don't ask me why).
  9. bartonig Senior Member

    UK English
    I always say if you care for the animal (ie. emotionally attached), or the owner does, then use he or she (or ask if you don't know).
  10. Fidelia Member

    NYC (school year) but from LI, NY
    United States, English
    I think that in some general statement, like "If a dog is pawing at the door it probably wants to go outside" it is ok to use it, because, it is about dogs in general, and no specific dog of which the gender is known. But if I were to say that same thing about my dog, who is a girl dog, I would say "If my dog is pawing at the door, it probably means she wants to go outside."

    But if you don't know the gender of the dog, and don't want to use "it" sometimes it is possible to say "That is (or "you have") such a cute dog" or something like that. Likewise, because I work at a store where I see lots of babies, I sometimes say, (if I can't tell) "What a cute baby" or "You have such a beautiful baby"
    Something like that, if it is possible to say, takes away the awkwardness of not knowing (sometimes not being able to tell) the gender of the dog or baby. And sometimes the owner's/parent's response might include the gender for you like- "Thank you, she's been sleeping this whole time" (baby) or "Thank you I just got him groomed" (dog) or something.

    I know how awkward it can be to want to chat or compliment and avoid "it" and not want to offend, because I can't tell if the baby/dog is a girl or boy. lol.

    Also- For an animal, if you're not sure, you may be able to get away with using "they" though i would avoid that for a baby. And then the response would probably supply the gender for you. But still, using "they" may not be as good an idea in general, even for an animal. It is not something I personally do. Any opinions on "they" for a gender-unknown animal?
  11. Brioche

    Brioche Senior Member

    Australia English
    "Gender" is an inappropriate term for animals.
    Especially in the modern, feminist-flavoured meaning of the word.

    With animals, it is just plain sex. Male animals and female animals behave they way they do because of their sex; they don't have 'gender roles'.

    I am perfectly happy to refer to an animal as "it" when I don't know its sex.

    "Don't touch that dog. It looks dangerous."
    "That baby bird has fallen out of its nest."

    Can't imagine saying 'he' or 'she' here:
    "Oh, look at the dophin over there!"
    "It's not a dolphin; it's a shark! Can't you see? It's got an upright tail!"

    Obviously I say 'he', if referring to a stallion, bull or ram; and 'she' for mare, cow or ewe.
  12. jimreilly

    jimreilly Senior Member

    American English
    I had a high school English teacher in the 1950's who insisted that an animal was always "it". Most of us in the class didn't like this (I still don't) because we had pets; I had a very neurotic dog who was certainly a "he". The teacher insisted that our attachment to our pets didn't negate the rule. This makes me wonder: did there used to be a "rule" that has now been susperseded by common usage patterns? Was anyone else my age or older (or their pets) subjected to this rule? Too bad we don't have an Academie Anglaise to rule on these things, not that we'd pay attention to it if we had it, any more than my teacher's students followed her rules once we left the classroom!
  13. el alabamiano Senior Member

    English (US)
    The story of my life! (Sort of.)

    Heartless English-teacher rule:

    Cattle are grazing in the pasture. (If the herd consists of both boy cows and girl cows.)

    Cows are grazing in the pasture. (If there aren't any boy cows in the mix. - Boy cows include steers.) :rolleyes:

    A mare is grazing in the pasture. It has just foaled. (Notice a pattern here? Heartless English-teacher rule also requires animal-gender knowledge.)

    Ol' Giddy-up Sal just had herself a brand spanking baby! (Alabama country-English rule.)
  14. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    No. English words used to have gender just as French and German words do now. You used the appropriate pronoun, and it was simply the neuter version of "he," just as that was the neuter form of "the."

    "Rules" of grammar are an obsession of recent times, and most of them were created rather arbitrarily in the 18th and especially 19th centuries, by people who thought English ought to have a strict and ordered grammar, just like Latin.

    What is so hard about agreeing that we live in a world where animals are objects to some people, and individuals to others, complete with names and little tailor-made outfits? People don't dress their pets in waistcoats and garter belts and spats according to sartorial "rules." The same applies to the language they use in describing or referring to these animals-- or in some cases conversing with them.

    Usually in baby talk, which doesn't have a formal grammar either-- but give the sticklers time, they'll eventually come up with one!
  15. jimreilly

    jimreilly Senior Member

    American English
    You are right on, which is why I wrote "rule" and not rule in the first place. I was just wondering if there were others who had been subjected to the "rule".....and if the "rule" existed written down somewhere in someone's grammar book.
  16. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    You know, if anything I think people used to be more meticulous, not less, about using gender-specific words for animals. We were closer to animals, of course-- I mean in proximity and sympathy, not necessarily resemblance, which has been a constant whether we acknowlledge it or not.

    Just think of all the quaint old words like ruff and ree and pen and cob, a different male and female form, just about, for any kind of animal you'd care to name. What kind of language has a word specifically for male cats? Whoa, I guess cats share the word with turkeys, don't they?

    Another symptom of the richness of English (and its preference for eccentricity over order) is the abundance of species-specific words for young animals. Cubs, pups, kids, kits, keets and-- well, for some reason tadpoles pop into mind. I've gotta get that brain pan cleaned out some day.

    A similar topic is specific terms for groups of animals-- clutches, coveys, bevies and flocks and so forth. A "sute of badgers," for cryin out loud. But that's straying into another thread, isn't it, and one that's probably already been posted.
  17. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    You totally lost me there. I understand that "tom" can stand for a male turkey, but I'm used to the word "tomcat", which seems pretty clear. And German has "Kater" for male cat, "Katze" for any cat. It's actually more complicated, but this is the wrong forum. :)

    My wife's mother, a really lovely lady, always called my cat, "Monster", "she", which I found extremely amusing, sine "he" was so large, a huge, black "Halloween cat". At the same time, I had the irrational urge to correct her. I do think that that English speakers have a strong need to assign gender/sex, whatever, to a pet. I think this is especially easy in English because nouns do not have a gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), and things are much stranger (to me) in languages when lamps, trees and shoes do have a "gender". :)

  18. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    I would miss the old "sex" category on forms we have to fill out, which are asking for "male" or "female". If this is replaced by "gender", it would be so much harder to write in:

    1) None.
    2) Not enough.
    3) Miss it.


  19. Isotta

    Isotta Senior Member

    English, Hodgepodge
    Now I would say, "What's its name?" to the animal's owner, or "Is it a girl or a boy?" Note that if you say "What's its name" quickly enough, it becomes indistinguishable from "What's his name."

    For a baby, I have found that "it" is unacceptable, thus I--regretfully--resort to baby talk, "What's your name?" with the idea that the parent will answer for the baby. Alternatively, you can say, "What is your baby's name?" Or you can look at the baby, turn to the parent and say "Girl or boy?" for gender. I suggest that you begin with the last, since nonspecific gender names have popped up of late.

  20. Strider Senior Member

    England, English
    To help my students with this problem, I givr the following guidance: if the thing in question (animal, baby, ship, car...) has a personal name you use 'he' or 'she'. If it doesn't have a personal name, use 'it'.

    So a pet is he or she : This is Bonzo, isn't he cute?

    But a nameless animal is 'it' : That dog is back again, I think it's a stray.

    A car can be he or she : We call her Bessie, we've had her since new!

    And of course a car can be 'it' : I like the new BMW, it's bigger than the old one.

    Of course, this is just my opinion!
  21. Fidelia Member

    NYC (school year) but from LI, NY
    United States, English
    I agree, that is similar to what I had said before. But I do feel that if the gender/sex of an animal is known, there is nothing wrong with using he or she. I think it is basic biology/anatomy. Animals are male and female just like humans are.
    Yes, never use "it" for a baby, but for a dog, as above, I wouldnt take offense at someone asking me "What's it's name" while I'm walking my dog (that is a girl- despite the fact that her pink collar and leash kind of give it away-) but once I "introduce" her, saying, "Her name is Elsa" I would appreciate her being referred to as "her" instead of "it" As, biologically and anatomically, she is female. (And she has a cute pink collar and leash gosh-darn-it lol)
    And pets are like family members to their owners. This is something that I admit I never ever understood about dog-owners until two years ago, when my family got Elsa as a puppy. I remember not understanding why my friend was so upset when her dog died in middle school-- now that I have a dog, i understand. The time and energy and money it takes to take care of an animal is like a baby in the family.
    But the point being- with a baby, you don't want to use "it" but with an animal of which the gender/sex is known, especially one that is a pet (therefore emotionally and financially a furry four-legged baby) using he or she would also be preferred.

    p.s. Why is gender inappropriate for animals? How do they not have gender roles? Males do one thing, females do another. In a pride of lions (another one of those names for groups of animals) the females do the hunting, the males don't. And I am sure there are other species that are similar, or opposite, or whatever.
  22. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I can't agree with your criteria. If I spot a group of deer or elk or bighorns on a mountainside, or see a flock of domestic sheep or a herd of cattle-- even from quite a distance I see animals of gender, not just nondescript critters. If I comment on the quality of the antlers, there's no way I'd say "good god does it ever have a rack on it."

    You see a bulldog or boxer with a pair of nads protruding under a docked tail stub, the three of them wagging along like the balls hanging outside a pawnshop, on a windy day-- and you'd say:

    "That's what your uncle Eddie looks like."
    "Like that bulldog? Oh nice."
    "Like him walking backwards."

    Most guys who think of their cars "personally" don't give em names. But like ships, they're sometimes called she-- so I guess I also disagree with "a car can be he or a she." Yeah I know that GTO in The Dukes of Hazzard was called the Bob E Lee or some such thing-- just one of a whole long list of reasons that goofy show was so untrue-to-life.

    Or maybe my perspective is obsolete, and only pertains to guys who got involved in cars before there were so many TV shows about cars to get involved in instead. Maybe they call their dragsters Conan and detail them with pulp-paperback-cover art.

    "He's a hot little number-- got more under the hood'n you can handle."

  23. fdk47 Senior Member

    If a stranger asks you "Where did you get it?" about your dog, how unlikely/strange would it sound for someone to say "I bought it at a pet store."?

    Because the question says "it", I wonder if it's possible for a native speaker to match the word by saying "it" instead of "he/she" but I don't really know.

    Thank you.
  24. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    I don't think it's beyond the stretch of the imagination that the owner of a dog would know whether it's male or female.

    Speaking as one who is heavily involved in the using, training and testing of hunting dogs for many years, I've never heard a person refer to his/her dog (or child, wife, brother or sister) as "it."
  25. fdk47 Senior Member

    Thank you, sdgraham!
  26. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)
    The respondent wouldn't feel obliged to say "it" because the questioner did. They will reply with "it "he" or "she" depending on whatever they normally use. In fact, as sdgraham says, the owner would know the animals sex and probably reply, "she" (or of course "he") with stress on this word "is called..." expecting the person asking the questioner to then carry on saying "he" or "she" as appropriate.

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