Dog/Cat/Deer: Common gender or neuter gender?

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Englishmypassion

Senior Member
India - Hindi
Dear Teachers,
The following sentence is part of a lesson (for little children) on genders of nouns.

Nouns that refer to animals without indicating whether the animals are male or female are said to be of the .............. gender, for example, "dog", "deer", "cat", "bird".

Should we use "common" or "neuter" in the blank? I think it should be "common" because though we usually use "it" for such animals, that is a pronoun while we are dealing with nouns here. Besides, as they are living beings, they should fall in the category of common gender nouns, I think.

Thank you very much in advance.
 
  • Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    I reckon it's common, but not exactly for the reason you give.

    Take for example the common-gender noun friend. We can apply that to a man or a woman, and when we know more about them we can specify boyfriend, girlfriend, male friend, etc.

    Likewise dog: once we know more, we can qualify the animal as dog, bitch, male dog, female dog, etc.

    Not all living beings have enough personality for us to extend to them the essentially human quality of the common-gender noun or pronoun. Most people will call their pet cat he or she, but I don't think many will extend this courtesy to, say, a mosquito.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    Yes, it's "common", as it is possible to use a gendered pronoun if details are known: The doctor advised that I should exercise - she always says that..."

    Neuter nouns refer to things that have no gender at all - a rock, any concept, a hammer, an electric current, etc.

    (Crosspost with Keith.)
     

    Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    I'm not familiar with the word common as meaning neither masculine nor feminine. I would say there is no such thing as common gender.
    We do however talk of the common name for animals, but that really has nothing to do with grammar.

    The sentence "Nouns ... are said to be of ... gender." is strictly speaking illogical because English nouns do not have gender. As far as I'm aware, there are only two words in English that have gender, namely the pronouns he and she.

    Of course, whether nouns have (or "are of") a certain gender is a completely separate issue from whether they denote gender (i.e. the quality of being masculine or feminine) or indeed sex (the quality of being male or female).
    One of my pet peeves is people using gender when they mean sex. It seems to stem from a belief that "sex" is a dirty word, especially when it comes after the verb "have". :D
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Sorry, Edinburgher, the evidence is against you.

    There are four genders of nouns/pronouns in English:
    Masculine, e.g: King, he, him, his
    Feminine, e.g: Girl, she, her, hers
    Common, e.g: Friend, they, them, theirs
    Neuter, e.g: Table, it, it, its.​

    The gender of the noun/pronoun denotes the sex of the person/animal/object referred to (boats and God excepted). This makes English very different from many other languages where the gender of the noun may denote the material, colour, geographical origin, size, social status, Latin etymology, etc. of the person/animal/object.

    I was a little surprised that Englishmypassion referred to "a lesson (for little children) on genders of nouns". This is, of course, because no English person ever had such a lesson as a little child - we'd all learnt it spontaneously by the age of three, to the extent that we can even deny that it exists, like fish denying the existence of water.
     
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    Englishmypassion

    Senior Member
    India - Hindi
    Thank you very much, KB, Paul and EB.
    KB, though I didn't give that obvious reason expressly, I said that in the penultimate sentence in the OP.

    Yes, EB, but grammar books talk of genders all the time instead of using the word "sex".
    But I really wonder how students would react if their teacher told them "Nouns have sex..." :D
     
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    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I would say there is no such thing as common gender.
    "Common" is indeed a classification of noun:
    http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/apl/34/6/384/

    Measuring the level of abstraction. -
    R Flesch - Journal of Applied Psychology, 1950 – (Ed. PQ - unfortunately behind a paywall)
    ... (2) Count all common nouns that have natural gender, either masculine or feminine. Examples-.father, mother, iceman, actress. ... do not count them when they do not indicate gender (eg,
    fellow workers). Do not count common-gender nouns like teacher, doctor, employee, spouse.
     

    Truffula

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Some nouns have as part of their definition a gender ("girl", "king" are examples of this situation) but that's not a grammatical gender, it's a definition that includes it. If there were a specific situation where you had a female who was a king, you'd still use "she" rather than "he" - unlike the situation where pronouns have grammatical number, as a counterexample, where you'd use "they are" rather than "they is" even if you knew it was a singular "they."

    It'd be a contrived situation, but still it shows that the gender belongs to the person represented by the noun, not to the word. Let's take the example of the movie If I Were You starring Marcia Gay Harden. In this movie, Harden's character plays King Lear in a play the characters try out for in one scene. So in that version of the play, the king and her daughters are all played by women. If "king" as a noun had a grammatical male gender, I would say "his daughters" even in this circumstance, but in English that wouldn't sound right.

    I think it's a poor idea to teach young English learners this because it will mislead them. Just tell them that if the pronoun represents a person, use "he" for male and "she" for female. In the case of animals it's really up to the individual to use "it" or "he" or "she" because none of them is wrong.
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    . Let's take the example of the movie If I Were You starring Marcia Gay Harden. In this movie, Harden's character plays King Lear in a play the characters try out for in one scene. So in that version of the play, the king and her daughters are all played by women. If "king" as a noun had a grammatical male gender, I would say "his daughters" even in this circumstance, but in English that wouldn't sound right.
    I'm not sure that I'm understanding you correctly. Lear is a man no matter who plays him.
     

    Truffula

    Senior Member
    English - USA
    Not in that particular movie, pob14. Here is another example since that one was a bit confusing apparently:

    From the Wikipedia article on Hatshepsut, a famous pharoah of ancient Egypt who was female:

    The dating of the amphorae, "sealed into the [tomb's] burial chamber by the debris from Senenmut's own tomb," is undisputed which means that Hatshepsut was acknowledged as king, and not queen, of Egypt by Year 7 of her reign.[13]
     

    pob14

    Senior Member
    American English
    Not in that particular movie, pob14.
    I think I misunderstood your example. I understand the Hatshepsut example; if a female is king, she's king. But in, for example, the production of Hamlet I saw two years ago, Hamlet was played by a woman, but Hamlet was still Hamlet: a man, the prince of Denmark, the son of Gertrude, and male lover of Ophelia. Hamlet was most certainly a "he," although the actress was definitely a "she."

    I didn't realize you were referring to a rewrite of Lear, changing him into a female character, the mother of three daughters.
     

    Andygc

    Senior Member
    British English
    to the extent that we can even deny that it exists, like fish denying the existence of water.
    Which remark demonstrates that you don't understand the difference between grammatical gender and natural (ie semantic) gender. As the OED definition for gender (in the sense of referring to inflected nouns, adjectives and, in some languages, verbs) notes
    Sometimes called grammatical gender, to distinguish this sense from natural gender
    and
    English is regarded as possessing natural gender in that certain pronouns expressing natural contrasts in gender are selected to refer to nouns according to the meaning of the nouns, the contrasts being either between masculine (e.g. he, his, etc.) and feminine (e.g. she, her, etc.) or between personal (e.g. the abovementioned masculine and feminine pronouns andwho, whoever, etc.) and non-personal (e.g.it, its, which, etc.). In recent times nouns incorporating gender suffixes (esp. those indicating females and formed on generic nouns, such as authoress, poetess, etc.) have become much restricted in use.
     

    srk

    Senior Member
    English - US
    This makes English very different from many other languages where the gender of the noun may denote the material, colour, geographical origin, size, social status, Latin etymology, etc. of the person/animal/object.
    Omitted from this list is the important category of nouns whose gender is determined by the noun's grammatical origins within the language itself. German invariably assigns neuter gender to verb infinitives used as nouns, and feminine gender to a wide class of nouns formed by adding certain suffixes to verb stems and to other parts of speech.
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Which remark demonstrates that you don't understand the difference between grammatical gender and natural (ie semantic) gender...
    I was meaning to say that most English speakers don't learn about gender at school because they've already picked it up by the age of three. Whether you call it natural gender or grammatical gender is irrelevant to them - they are oblivious to it and will intuitively extrapolate woman - she - her - hers in a way that those who have other mother-tongues like French or Hindi will not.

    This was brought home to me most clearly when a French student of mine, asked to describe a person, said "She has a beard". Why? Because the French word for person is feminine, whereas in English this word has common gender. (Which is where the OP came in.)
     
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