Gender is a category of noun. A noun can have a masculine gender, a feminine gender or a neuter gender.

Easy Examples of Gender

  • man (masculine gender)
  • woman (feminine gender)
  • house (neuter gender)
  • chicken (neuter gender – if we don't know if it’s a rooster or a hen)

More Examples of Gender

In English, the gender of a noun affects the pronouns we use with it (e.g., he, she, it) and the possessive adjectives (e.g., his, her, its).
  • The man ripped his new coat, which he only bought yesterday.
  • The woman lost her blue shoes, which she had never worn.
  • The dog chewed its leather collar, which it hated.
While there are lots of gender-specific nouns in English (e.g., actor, actress, prince, princess), a normal noun (e.g., parent, cousin, teenager, teacher) doesn't reflect its gender until it's substituted for a pronoun or used with a possessive adjective.

In many languages (e.g., Russian and German), the spelling of a noun (as opposed to its meaning) often determines its gender. For example, if a noun ends -a (in Russian) or ends –heit (in German), then it will be feminine. This is not how it works in English, where gender is directly linked to whether something is male, female or neuter.

In English, nouns are often described as "gender neutral" because the gender of a noun can change. Let's look at the noun dog:
Neuter (We don't know the dog.)It has lost its bone.
Masculine (We know it's a boy.)He is admiring his large bone.
Feminine (We know it's a girl.)She wants her Sunday bone.
Also of note, very occasionally, a noun you'd expect to be neuter (e.g., country, car, ship) is treated as feminine to portray affection.
  • France will defend herself.
  • My Camaro has her creaks and groans, but she will get us there.
  • She was loved by her crew before they smashed her on the beach.

Why Should I Care about Gender?

There are two issues linked to gender.

(Issue 1) Finding an alternative to "his/her"

Look at these sentences:
  • Each person must understand where he fits in the team.
  • Anyone who forgets his passport will be sent home.
But what if they're not all male? Using he or his for unknown people was the accepted practice, but no longer. It is, of course, sexist and inaccurate. 

To get around this, you could write:
  • Each person must understand where he/she fits in the team.
  • Anyone who forgets his or her passport will be sent home.
But, as they're clumsy solutions, lots of people naturally opt for this:
  • Each person must understand where they fit in the team.
  • Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home.
This has been going on for over six centuries, and so it sounds fine. However, we now have person and anyone (both of which are singular) paired up with they and their (both of which are plural). Surely, they're grammar mistakes. Well, nowadays, they're not. Using a "singular they" (as it's called) is now a formally accepted practice. In the past, tweed-clad teachers might have spluttered on their pipes if the antecedent of they or their was a singular noun or pronoun, but this wouldn't interfere with today's trendy teachers' vaping. Moreover, using a singular they is now encouraged – and with good reason: it's far tidier than using just "he", "he or she" or "he/she". (NB: "Singular they" was nominated as the American Dialect Society's word of the year in 2015.)

It's not just they and their that can be singular. Them, theirs and themselves can be singular too.

This issue commonly crops up with sentences including the pronouns anyone, everyone and everyone.

Here's the bottom line: you are safe to treat they, their, them, etc. as singular. If you really can't bear pairing them with a singular noun, then take another puff on your pipe and reword your sentence.
  • If you forget your passport, you will be sent home.

(Issue 2) Choosing the right version of blonde/blond

The word blond/blonde changes depending on its gender. Blond is a noun meaning a fair-haired male.
  • The blond has nice shoes.
  • (We now know it's a boy.)
Blond is also an adjective used to describe anybody (regardless of their gender) with fair hair.
  • The blond girl and the blond boy make a nice blond couple.
  • (When it's an adjective, blond can be used for all genders.)
Blonde is a noun meaning a fair-haired female.
  • The blonde has nice shoes.
  • (We now know it's a girl.)
Blonde is also an adjective used to describe a female (or females) with fair hair.
  • The blonde girl and the blond boy make a nice blond couple.
  • (Blonde or blond can be used to describe females.)

(Issue 3) Using gender-neutral pronouns for people who do not identify themselves as either male or female

Be aware that some people identify themselves as both male and female while others as neither male nor female. These people might ask you to use they (and of course their, them, theirs, themselves) or just their name instead of a pronoun (e.g., Sarah, Sarah's, Sarah's self) when talking about them.

You might also have noticed other gender-neutral pronouns appearing. Ey, per, sie, ve, and zie are all recently proposed alternatives to he or she, but at present none is showing any signs of entering into common usage. However, use of they for a gender-neutral singular pronoun (or "non-binary pronoun" as it's often called in this context) is deemed by a growing number of linguistics specialists to have a chance, particularly as it's used in very similar way already (see "Issue 1" above).

Key Point

  • When writing about someone whose gender is unknown, don't use he/she, his/her, etc. Use they, their, etc. For example:
    • Anyone claiming he/she is they are medically exempt from this activity must have a note from his/her their doctor.
  • Use blond for men and blonde for women.
  • Be aware that people identifying themselves as both male and female or neither might ask you to use they as their preferred pronoun or just their name instead of a pronoun.
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