Mailman or Mail Carrier: Gender in the English Language

A YouTube viewer asked about my use of she to refer to one of my dolls. Confusion arose over the fact that I was referring to an inanimate object. Why didn’t I use it? The learner wanted to understand my word choice. This is a fun point to discuss with students. Point of view can heavily influence one’s grammar and vocabulary. I explained how we also use he or she to refer to animals, especially pets, if the gender is known. You hear this practice in wildlife documentaries all the time. A lioness might even take offense if the narrator used it to refer to her! In the case of my doll, a special and familiar object to me, I want to recognize her identity. I prefer she to it.

If any of you have ever watched the TV show True Blood, you might recall that one character uses the exclamation “Oh my goddess!” instead of the more common expression of surprise “Oh my god!” Again, it’s all about point of view. The discussion of gendered nouns and gender-neutral nouns in English is even more interesting than our flexibility with pronouns.

What I feel is most beneficial and practical in the context of a language lesson is an objective presentation of the trends. There are concepts that have remained masculine and feminine, and our stable vocabulary reflects this. King, queen, brother, and sister are just a few examples. However, gender-neutral words for occupations have really become more frequent in English. Students must be prepared to understand flight attendant, server, salesperson, and other job titles in day-to-day communication.

If you would like to address the issue of gender in the English language, please consider using some of my resources:

  • Language Notes_13_classroom slides Images of family and occupations will prompt students to speak. This pre-lesson activity can reveal the language students presently have to identify people.
  • Lesson 13 in my Language Notes series will present gendered nouns and gender-neutral nouns. You can use the video to supplement your own presentation or to help you plan your own examples.
  • Interactive exercises on gendered nouns and gender-neutral nouns can be used for independent review.

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