Are there masculine or feminine words in English? In general, there’s no distinction between masculine and feminine in English nouns. But sometimes we show gender in different words when referring to people or animals. In this article we’ll explain gender in English language in more detail.
We’ve dedicated this special IELTS Grammar 101 article to International Women’s Day 2020. We celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) every year on March 8. On this day, we recognise the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This year’s theme is #EachforEqual.
About a quarter of the world’s languages uses gender. In technical terms, gender in languages is just one way of breaking up nouns into classes or categories. A noun is a part of language that names a person, place, thing, idea, action or quality. For example, nouns can refer to an individual name of a person. Like Mike or Amrita. Also, it can refer to a place or thing. Examples of nouns might include Sydney, Louis Vuitton, or Qantas. In some languages, nouns, such as Qantas, can be male or female. Masculine of feminine.
It’s important to distinguish between grammatical gender and natural gender. Natural gender is simply the biological sex of a person, animal or character. Grammatical gender is a way of classifying nouns. But this doesn’t always match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described.
In some languages, grammatical gender is more than just “male” or “female.” Some languages have a “neuter” class. Other languages others have different genders for animate versus inanimate objects. See how this works in other languages.
- English makes life a little easier for us when it comes to gender and grammar.
In general, there’s no distinction between masculine and feminine in English language. But sometimes we show gender in different words when referring to people or animals.
List of masculine and feminine words in English
- Read the transcript of this video
Women and men face double standards. No, I don’t mean just the gender pay gap, I’m also talking about the different words we use to describe men and women with the same characteristics.
While he is described as charismatic, she’s often described as bubbly or vivacious. You wouldn’t describe him as an airhead, he’s just simple. She’s an airhead. She’s bossy. He’s assertive. Women are far more likely than men to be described as gossiping.
Try for yourself
If you don’t believe me, after this film, try a Google images search for gossip.
Unlike French, German, Spanish, Polish, practically any other European language, English doesn’t have gender inherent in most of its words. But some of those words become gendered anyway when choose different words to describe men and women.
Feisty is a classic example. It’s rare to hear a man described as feisty. Sure, you could hear about a feisty boxer but it’s a lot more likely to describe a flyweight than a heavyweight. That’s why some women hear feisty as applying a kind of figurative or literal smallness in them and hence a note of condescension.
Academics from the University of Illinois and the University of California analyzed over 100,000 works of fiction written between 1800 and 2010. They identified words connecting to male or female characters and the actions they performed. The study showed that the word house used to be a strongly male term in the 1800s.
House was associated with the landed gentry in Victorian era. But as the 20th century wore on, house became a slightly more female term associated with domesticity. The writer Ben Blatt found that the verbs most associated with the pronoun she in classic fiction are: shivered, wept, murmured, screamed, and married.
Commonly associated with “he”
The most commonly associated with he are: muttered, grinned, shouted, chuckled, and killed.
An algorithm used by those academics who studied house tries to determine a character’s gender based only on the language used in descriptions and dialogue.
These predictions were right 75% of the time for books written around 1800 but that falls to just about 65% of the time in books written around 2000. In other words, the vocabulary used to describe women and men is becoming more blurred.
So, the gender stereotypes like feisty are less common than they used to be.
Nearly all words have different shades of meaning. While the speaker intends the positive one, the hearer often hears the negative. And that’s a good reason to avoid compliments that convey a note of surprise.
Lane, you are so articulate. Really? Scouring your mind for a vocative language isn’t easy but working hard to be original and to avoid giving unwanted offense can only be a good thing.
Thanks to: The Economist
In English we do not assign a gender to words. But how does gender work in foreign languages? For Italians, boys (il bambino) are masculine. Girls (la bambina), on the other hand, are feminine. Germans, for example, assign three different genders to the three basic eating utensils: fork (die Gabel) is feminine. A knife (das Messer) is neutral. And, finally, a spoon (der Löffel) is masculine. Strangely, German doesn’t assign a gender to a young lady (das Mädchen).
Of course, German is not the only language that considers lifeless objects “male” or “female.” It also is not the only language that assigns living beings a grammatical gender unrelated to their sex. In Irish, for example, a girl (cailín) is masculine, while a stallion (stail) is feminine. The list goes on. If you want to know more, check this short article.
Interestingly, in Modern English, there are some word groups left which are considered ‘feminine’, at least in a poetic or quaint sense. These include ships, countries and churches, for example.
Therefore, in English, ships are sometimes referred to as “she”. For example, “I travelled from England to New York on the Queen Elizabeth; she (the Queen Elizabeth) is a great ship.”
A naval historian provides an explanation why this might be the case. As we have seen, other languages have “male”, “female” and sometimes “neuter” words. But, English generally uses a neutral words such as “the” or “it”. So, making ships female and calling them “she” is an example of old English-speaking practice. Why? Because it gives a gender to an inanimate object. It’s worth noting that Lloyd’s Register of Shipping now calls ships “it”.
There are some other examples of gender in English language, too:
- I love my car. She (the car) is my greatest passion.
- France is popular with her (France’s) neighbours at the moment.
- I travelled from England to New York on the Queen Elizabeth; she (the Queen Elizabeth) is a great ship.
So, if you’re a non-native speaker of English and want to impress someone with your linguistic knowledge, make a reference to a ship or country using the word ‘she’. “The Titanic sank in 1912, didn’t she?” But, you have to be careful. It might make you seem a tiny bit pretentious. It is also not very gender inclusive.
We’ve had a look why some words are referred to as “she”. In fact, we use “man” and words ending in “-man” far more as gendered nouns in English. Let’s look at the example of “fireman.” We don’t really say “firewoman” in English. But woman certainly fight fires. The profession of fighting fires was historically a predominantly male job.
At the same time, traditionally feminine nouns such as actress and waitress are becoming less common. There are lots of examples where the masculine term of actor and waiter is now used for both men and women.
That’s why language is important
A linguistics professor explains that the language we use doesn’t only reflects our culture but also constructs it. That means that language can set expectations about how people are supposed to be. If you see a job advertised online and it says “Barman needed now!” it implies they are looking for a man, not a woman. Similarly, how many men do you think would apply to an advert asking for “waitresses”?
It’s the same with fireman or policeman. The more we use these words, the more people expect those jobs to be done by men. But, there are very, very few jobs out there that require one gender to do the role rather than open to both
Luckily, you can spot these gender-biased easily in English. And, it’s also very easy to replace them with neutral language. We have a list of examples with gender inclusive words.
|Gendered noun||Gender-neutral noun|
|mankind||people, human beings, humanity|
|man-made||machine-made, synthetic, artificial|
|the common man||the average person|
|chairman||chair, chairperson, coordinator, head|
|mailman||mail carrier, letter carrier, postal worker|
|steward, stewardess||flight attendant|
|congressman||legislator, congressional representative|
|Sir (in “Dear Sir,” etc.)||Dear Sir or Madam, Dear Editor, Dear Members of the Search Committee, To Whom it May Concern|
|Waiter, waitress||Server or wait staff|
|Ladies & Gentlemen||Folks or everybody|
|Boyfriend, girlfriend||Partner, significant other, spouse|
|Salesman, saleswoman||Salesperson or sales representative|
So, why would you use gender inclusive language? It’s good to use words that avoids bias towards a particular sex or social gender. In the list of gender-inclusive language you can see terms as “chairman.” This word contains the component -man. Yet, women are equally capable of holding very senior positions. If you use the term chairperson, it means the same but demonstrates inclusion of all people, regardless of their biological gender.
- So, by not using a word ending in “-man” as the as the standard for certain jobs, we can normalise the idea that anyone can perform a job, regardless of their gender identity.
“A father and son get in a car crash and are rushed to the hospital. The father dies. The boy is taken to the operating room and the surgeon says, “I can’t operate on this boy, because he’s my son.”
How is this possible?
The IELTS Speaking test is supposed to represent a normal conversation between two people. But, it is also an opportunity to show off your language skills. So, you could impress your examiner by using gender-neutral words. If you talk about jobs, use “salesperson” instead of “salesman.” Makes sense, right?
You can get a high IELTS band score if you show the ability to use idiomatic expressions appropriately, but perhaps stick with common idiomatic expressions that are well-known. We’ve provided some helpful lists with our Idioms A-Z: Explained.