Gender (references to males and females)

Animals, cars, ships and countries

In English we usually use it to refer to animals and things. However, sometimes we call animals he or she. This practice is common when animals are thought of as having personality.

My grandfather had a dog called Tom. He was very … (More natural than ‘It was very …)

He is sometimes used in cases where the sex of the animal is not known.

Look at the little monkey. Isn’t he cute?

Some people use she for cars, motorbikes, ships, boats etc.

The ship has struck an iceberg. She is sinking. OR It is sinking. (NOT He is sinking.)

In modern English, we usually use it for countries. She is also sometimes used.

India is keen on improving its relations with China. OR India is keen on improving her relations with China.

He or she?

English has traditionally used he in cases where the sex of a person is not known. He is also used in references that can apply to either men or women.

If I ever find the person who did this, I will kill him. (NOT …I will kill her.)

This usage is now regarded as sexist and many people try to avoid it. Instead, they use the expression ‘he or she’.

If a student is ill he or she is required to submit a medical certificate.OR If a student is ill he is required to submit a medical certificate.

They instead of he or she

In an informal style, we often use they instead of ‘he or she’. They is commonly used to refer back to indefinite words like somebody, anybody, nobody, person etc.

‘There is somebody at the door.’ ‘Tell them I am out.’
If anybody comes ask them to wait.
God send everyone their heart’s desire. (Shakespeare)