Gender in English grammar
In English grammar, there is a two tier gender system. Primarily, nouns may or may not be classified by whether or not they have personal agency. Common gender words cover both agential and non-agential concepts. Examples include "computer", "calculator", which can refer to human or non-human things, as well as the subject pronoun "they" and its associated derivations.
However, if a word is obligatorily non-agential, it is classified as neuter. Examples of neuter nouns are "table", "capitalism" and "coffee", and are typically referred to in the singular by the third person singular pronoun set (it, etc). Consequently, we can't use "it" to talk about people, who are obligatorily agential.
That leaves agential nouns: In the second tier, which is less important than the first, agential nouns may or may not be subclassified into a binary - masculine or feminine system of sexual gender. Dual gender nouns are not marked for sexual gender. Examples of dual words include "person", "politician" and "sky-diver", and the subject pronouns "I", "you" and "we".
Finally, agential nouns may be marked for sexual gender. This is done according to the speaker's binary perception of sociological gender, which in turn is strongly correlated with biological sex. Male-associated nouns are marked as masculine, and female-associated nouns are feminine. Examples of masculine nouns are "boy", "man", "duke" and the pronoun "he". Examples of feminine nouns include "girl", "woman", and the pronoun "she". Speakers typically make a best guess when using pronouns based on information known to them. If gender is unclear or unimportant, singular they can be used instead.
Unlike many related languages, English lacks gender concord whereby articles and sometimes adjectives must also be marked for gender in accordance with the head of the noun phrase that they are part of.
An individual may have a personal preference for which pronouns they wish other people to use when talking about them, so that the pronouns other people use reflect that individuals gender self-perception. Recently, there has been a movement that encourages people to include gender-identifying information while making introductions and in correspondence.
The "English lacks gender" myth
There is an untrue language myth that "English lacks gender". Gender however makes a much less significant contribution to the grammar of English than other related languages. Quirk (1985) for example calls it "covert" rather than "overt". It should also be acknowledged that many people are critical or even outright hostile towards parts or even the whole concept of sociological gender. They may prescribe gender neutral language.
Teachers of foreign languages such as French, Spanish, Italian German, etc will typically spend considerable time covering gender and gender concord in those languages. This is because gender is an important part of the basic grammar of those languages. It is also potentially confusing and therefore a potential source of errors (even though native speakers of those languages will often ignore gender errors). However, because the English gender system is comparatively straightforward, EFL teachers and materials generally do not cover English gender in any depth. Beginner level English language learners are introduced to gendered pronouns, but little is noted after that as it is assumed students will understand them and apply them without much difficulty.
Chinese students may use gender incorrectly; the Chinese third person singular pronouns, are pronounced identically (Pinyin) tā, although written differently (他=masculine, 她 =feminine, 它=neuter). Chinese English language learners don't find the concept of gender difficult to consciously understand, but their subconscious will sometimes fail to distinguish them during production. This is usually of limited significance because of context.
For further reading please see:
- Biber et al. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English pp 311-318
- Huddleston and Pullum (2002) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language pp 484-499
- Quirk et al. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language pp 314-317