What Is a Gender-specific Noun? (with Examples)

Gender-specific Noun

A gender-specific noun refers specifically to a male or a female. In English, the gender of most nouns is neuter. However, if a noun refers to something obviously male or female, then its gender will be masculine or feminine (as determined by the meaning).

When a noun's meaning makes its gender masculine or feminine, it is said to be a gender-specific noun.

Click on Two Gender Specific Nouns

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Examples of Gender-specific Nouns

Here are some examples of gender-specific nouns.

Nouns referring to females:
  • queen, vixen (female fox), bitch (female dog), sow (female pig)
  • (The grammatical gender of these nouns is feminine.)
Nouns referring to males:
  • king, uncle, drake (male duck), wether (a castrated male sheep or goat)
  • (The grammatical gender of these nouns is masculine.)
The following are not gender-specific nouns:
  • soldier, shark, lawyer, person
  • (Without further context, these are gender-neutral nouns.)

Real-Life Examples of Gender-specific Nouns

In English, the gender of a noun determines the pronouns we use with it (e.g., he, she, it) and the possessive determiners (e.g., his, her, its). In each of the following examples, the gender-specific noun is shaded and the related pronoun or possessive determiner is in bold.
  • My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. (Writer Mark Twain)
  • She got her looks from her father. He's a plastic surgeon. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. (Actor Jim Carrey)
  • I haven't spoken to my wife in years. I didn't want to interrupt her. (Comedian Rodney Dangerfield)

Why Should I Care about Gender-specific Nouns?

Mistakes involving gender-specific nouns are rare. However, the following two issues are worthy of note.

(Issue 1) Using the word actress

Using the gender-specific noun actress is a considered sexist by some, most probably because the noun actor has always been a gender-neutral term meaning a person who acts. Some feel the word actress, which emerged long after actor, is not needed and only serves to engender gender inequality. (After all, there are no female versions of nouns like doctor, politician, pilot, and beggar, so it's a fair point.) As a result of increasing public awareness on gender equality, the gender-neutral usage of actor is becoming more popular in modern English as people strive not to offend.

(Issue 2) Using the word chairman

Not everyone treats the noun chairman as a gender-specific noun, and it is regularly used for men and women. However, quite understandably, many consider it as masculine noun, and when the appointed person is female, they opt for chairwoman (a term that has been in use since at least the 17th century). So, some will think chairman is just for men, and some won't. This issue is often avoided by using the gender-neutral term chairperson or chair.
  • Don't call me chairman because I'm a woman. Don't call me chairwoman because my sex is irrelevant. Don't call me chairperson because that term is trying too hard not to be sexist. Call me chair. (This captures the issue. If you're unsure, use chair.)
The fire and rescue services avoided the same issue with fireman by introducing firefighter. The Royal Mail in the United Kingdom has kept the distinction, using postman and postwoman, but, informally, will use the gender-neutral postie.

In truth, it's become bit of minefield. Some might view your use of the -man version as sexist while others might view your avoidance of the -man version as sexist. This old joke plays on the dilemma:
  • Q: What do you call a blonde girl who flies a plane?
  • A: A pilot.
  • (It's sexist because it's not sexist.)
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See Also

What is gender? What are non-binary pronouns? What are nouns? What are pronouns? Abstract nouns Collective nouns Compound nouns Concrete nouns Non-countable nouns (mass nouns) Verbal nouns Gerunds Noun clauses Noun phrases