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Pronominal gender in references to animals

A statistical analysis of the influence of six variables in discourse
Laure Gardelle
p. 11-23


Il est aujourd’hui bien établi que dans les références aux animaux, le genre employé dans le pronom personnel de troisième personne ne correspond pas toujours au sexe et qu’il dépend en partie du point de vue de l’énonciateur. Pourtant, au-delà de ce fait, les conditions d’emploi du genre en discours sont peu connues ; notamment, il n’existe à ce jour aucune étude (à notre connaissance) qui établisse à grande échelle si certains contextes ou certaines configurations syntaxiques favorisent un genre animé ou au contraire le neutre. Le but de cet article est précisément de rechercher s’il existe de telles tendances, par une étude statistique de six variables telles que le genre discursif, le type d’énoncé ou la position de l’anaphorique par rapport à l’antécédent. L’analyse proposée, effectuée à l’aide du test du khi-carré de Pearson et de l’odds ratio (ou rapport des cotes), est menée à l’échelle d’un corpus électronique d’anglais américain, le COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English), et porte spécifiquement sur les références aux animaux pour lesquelles le nom de l’antécédent précise le sexe (ex. mare, gobbler).

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Author's notes

I wish to thank Rodney Huddleston for his most valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Full text

  • 1 Bold case mine, as in all the examples given here.

1While in references to human adults and inanimates gender selection almost always corresponds to sex (he / she) or to the absence of sex (it), it has been well established since Sweet (1898: 42) that in references to animals there was no such close correspondence. For instance Corbett (1991: 12) notes ‘a high degree of variability for animals’, while Swan (1997: 219) does not include them in his introductory account of gender selection: ‘Usually people are he or she and things are it.’ The more recent analyses (Huddleston and Pullum 2002: 488, Gardelle 2006: 109, Siemund 2008: 1) show that even when the antecedent noun specifies the sex, the co-referring anaphor might be a neuter pronoun. This is true both in contemporary English (1) and in earlier modern English (2), in which the animate genders were more common in references to animals: 1


(Siemund 2008: 1) (ICE-GB) The cow is either admitted for milking, or it may be turned away.


(Gardelle 2006: 109) (Evelyn 1661: 190) Sir Jo Finch told us of an exquisite poyson of the D: of Florences that kill’d with a drop: That drawing a threit and needle dipt in it thro a hens thigh it perish’d immediately.

2This lack of correlation between gender and sex in references to animals has led to the formulation of a specific criterion for these referents, alternatively defined as projection of personality (Sweet 1898: 42, Curme 1931: 551, Quirk et al. 1985: 341, Leech and Svartvik 1994: 56), familiarity (Zandvoort 1965: 132, Biber 1999: 317), animal thought of in its individual aspect (Kruisinga and Erades 1960: 445, Morris 1991: 158), greater degree of interest, involvement or empathy (Jespersen 1942: 209, Joly 1987: 234, Biber 1999: 317, Huddleston and Pullum 2002: 489) and relevance or importance of sex (Roggero 1988: 202, Sinclair et al. 1990: 29).

3The aim of the present article is to contribute to a better understanding of ‘point of view’ in relation to the contexts of use of gendered pronouns. It seeks to determine whether some measurable trends can be made out – in other words, whether some contexts or configurations favour the animate genders or conversely the neuter, which no study (to our knowledge) has sought to establish. This is achieved through a statistical analysis of gender use at the scale of a multi-million word corpus, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).

  • 2 NPs in which the sex is specified by a modifier (e.g. a male horse) were not included in the study (...)
  • 3 Quirk et al. (1985: 317) mention the possible influence of the distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lo (...)

4Because in a majority of utterances it is not possible to ascertain whether the sex of the referent is known to the speaker or not, it was decided to exclude this variable and to focus specifically on cases in which the sex of the animal is known to the speaker. This can typically be ascertained only when the antecedent noun specifies the sex of the animal (e.g. mare, cock-pheasant or gobbler)2; consequently the present study will only consider this configuration. Six variables will be analysed in turn: position of the anaphor relative to the antecedent (same clause, different clause within the same sentence, different sentence), type of utterance (generic, nonspecific or specific), genre, definiteness of the antecedent, syntactic function of the antecedent (more specifically whether it is a grammatical subject or not) and syntactic function of the pronoun. The reasons for selecting these variables will be developed in the analyses below3. Section I details the method used to collect the data. Sections II to VI present the findings for each variable. These were obtained using Pearson’s chi square test complemented by the odds ratio estimate. All the analyses were carried out with R version 2.14.1. P values lower than 0.05 (P < 0.05) were considered to be statistically significant.

I. Data collection procedure

5The corpus used for the study is the COCA, which when the data was collected (March to May 2011) contained 176,389 texts (425 million words) spanning the period 1990-2011 (20 million words per year). The corpus is designed to be balanced and representative of English language use in the United States. It is divided equally among five genres: spoken (90 million words; the occurrences are taken from TV and radio programmes and do not include free conversation), fiction (85 million words, from short stories to movie scripts), popular magazines (90 million words from nearly 100 different publications in a variety of domains such as news, health and hunting), newspapers (87 million words from more than 10 different titles) and academic texts (86 million words from about 100 peer-reviewed journals).

  • 4 Ordan and Wintner (2005) draw a tentative list of sex-specific nouns for their project of multiling (...)

6As there is no exhaustive list of sex-specific nouns to date4, in order to establish such a list a systematic search for the words male and female was carried out in the definition field of the Oxford English Dictionary (2011 online edition). This yielded 3040 occurrences (1115 for male, 1925 for female), from which the relevant headwords (sex-specific nouns for animals) were selected. Most sex-specific headwords denoting human beings, this process only yielded 63 nouns. This figure does not include compounds with he, she, lady or man as their first element, which were not retained. In the case of lady and man (e.g. lady elephant), the possible personification involved in the use of the noun could bias the results; as for he and she (e.g. he-goat), the OED does not provide a list of entries, so that exhaustiveness could not be achieved. A distinct study of the influence of those modifiers on pronominal gender would have to be carried out. All nouns that could be sex-neutral (e.g. duck, which can denote the species as well as the female of the species) were also discarded and are therefore not included in this count.

7The 63 nouns obtained were then searched for in the COCA. 30 of them (such as cock-lobster, spawner or vixen) returned no hits, either for the noun itself or for occurrences of the noun with a co-referential pronoun. The final number of nouns under study is thus 33: 16 for males and 17 for females, of which 24 are species-specific and 9 can denote sex for more than one species (buck / doe, bull / cow, cock / hen, male / female and sow). The latter were retained because of their relevance to the study. For each noun, all the hits were read in their context of use in order to determine whether there was a co-referential pronoun. The COCA interface enables an automatic search for collocates, but within nine words to the left or right only, which could have restricted the study. The procedure was therefore carried out manually, and although the mean distance between the anaphoric pronoun and its antecedent was eventually found to be 6.16 words, there were indeed 165 relevant occurrences of pronouns further away than 9 words. For reasons of feasibility, when there were well over 1,000 occurrences (which was the case for 19 nouns, for instance 8,563 hits for buck), the search was limited to a random 1,000, as permitted by the COCA interface. A further restriction was imposed on male and female. Their use as heads of noun phrases being extremely uncommon compared to compound uses, two samples of 1,000 occurrences of each noun failed to return any hits for co-referential pronouns. An automatic search for the two nouns with collocating pronouns was then carried out, but in references to animals none were found to be co-referential. It was therefore decided to restrict the search by imposing a determiner. A sample with a male / a female only showed results in compounds or for human beings, so the search eventually had to be restricted to the male / the female. The figures obtained for these antecedents were included (except for the specific variable of the definiteness of the antecedent) but only once a comparison of the corpus data with and without these two nouns showed that the restriction to determiner the did not bias the results. Finally occurrences of pronouns for dead animals, which occurred in the context of hunting or cooking, were discarded, as the /-animate/ feature could have had an additional influence on gender selection.

8What can be concluded from the data collection is that in a majority of utterances the nouns under study do not present co-referential pronouns in the COCA, either because the referent is not mentioned later on or because subsequent reference does not involve a personal pronoun. Out of the 23,519 utterances examined, only 734 pronominal references were found with sex-denoting antecedent nouns for living animals: 413 for males (including 29 for the male) and 321 for females (including 18 for the female). These occurrences, however, can be regarded as representative of gender use for animals in American English and the figure is high enough for reliable statistical analyses.

9The data shows that the neuter is far from marginal in the corpus: it is found in 130 occurrences out of 734 (17.7 %). This finding confirms that in references to animals gender does not correlate with sex and that point of view has a major influence on gender selection.

II. Variable 1: position of the anaphor relative to the antecedent

10The hypothesis to be tested here is whether gender selection is influenced by the position of the anaphor relative to its antecedent – whether they are both in the same clause, or in different clauses within the same sentence, and so on. There are two reasons for this variable to be considered. The first one is a syntactic one. In same-clause contexts the anaphoric expression bears a stronger grammatical relationship to its antecedent than in other contexts. It is part of the same constituent (the clause) and it is typically bound by its antecedent (in the sense given by Binding Theory: it is c-commanded by the antecedent and co-referential with it). The hypothesis to be tested is whether this has consequences on gender selection, possibly by favouring the mention of sex in the anaphor. The second reason is a semantic one. Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986) has shown that mentioning an item of information in context implies that it is relevant to the speaker. Choice of lexical information in discourse is guided by the Optimal Relevance principle, which is the result of a balance between processing cost and contextual effect (viz. the triggering of implications); as a result, any mention of information implies that the information is deemed worth the processing cost at the point when it is uttered. If this is applied to gender, the fact that a speaker chooses a sex-specific noun in the antecedent, at least in all the cases in which a sex-neutral word is also available, implies that sex is deemed relevant and important at that stage. When the anaphor is in the same clause as its antecedent, because it belongs to the same event description, the point of view on the referent cannot have evolved since the mention of the antecedent, so that sex still has to be relevant and important to the speaker when the pronoun’s gender is selected. The neuter might therefore be expected to be disfavoured in this context.

The distribution of genders according to position is as follows:

  • 5 To these must be added 2 occurrences of she 2 sentences away from the antecedent and 1 of he 4 sent (...)

Table 1 – Gender distribution according to the position of the anaphor relative to its antecedent5

Same clause

Different clause in same sentence

Next sentence













11The neuter is found in 17% of anaphors in same-clause contexts, 20.4% in different clause (same sentence) contexts and 13.4% of anaphors whose antecedent is in the previous sentence. These differences in proportions, however, are not found to be statistically significant (P = 0.111).

12One notes a slightly lower proportion of it for the ‘next sentence’ context compared to the other two. An additional statistical analysis along the sole criterion of sentence boundaries was therefore carried out to establish whether occurrence in a different sentence favoured the neuter:

Table 2 – Gender distribution according to the position of the anaphor
relative to the antecedent – same/different sentence

Same sentence

Different sentence










  • 6 This value is Pearson’s chi square corrected from continuity using the Monte Carlo procedure with 1 (...)

13The neuter is found in 19.4% of pronouns in same sentence contexts against 13.2% in different sentence contexts. This difference is slightly above 0.05 (P [uncorrected] = 0.059, P [corrected6] = 0.064), so that there is no statistically significant evidence that this variable has any influence on gender selection.

14Finally, an analysis of same-clause contexts against all others was carried out in order to establish whether belonging to the same clause played a role in gender selection:

Table 3 – Gender distribution according to the position of the anaphor relative to the antecedent – same/different clause

Same clause

Different clause










15The neuter is found in 17% of pronouns in same clause contexts against 17.9% in other contexts. This difference in proportion is not statistically significant (P = 0.816).

16In order to test the possible influence of Relevance, which would only apply when a generic term is available to the speaker, an extraction was made of pronouns in same-clause contexts whose antecedent nouns had a sex-neutral counterpart (e.g. [sheep] – ewe). Although the number of occurrences is fairly low (26 occurrences) it suggests that the neuter in same-clause contexts is not any less favoured here than in the corpus as a whole: it is found in 26.9% of occurrences (7 out of 26) against 17% in the corpus as a whole.

17As a conclusion on variable 1, there is no evidence that the position of the anaphor relative to its antecedent (same clause / ...) has any influence on gender selection.

III. Variable 2: type of utterance

18Given that animate genders in animal references imply such points of view as an animal thought of in its individual aspect (Kruisinga and Erades 1960, Morris 1991) or a greater degree of interest or empathy (Jespersen 1942, Huddleston and Pullum 2002), the hypothesis to be tested here is whether he and she are more common in specific utterances than in generic contexts.

19A specific NP is one that refers to a limited amount of elements in a given situation (Larreya and Rivière 2005: 171). In other words the NP has a specific referent in the extralinguistic world. The pronouns in utterances such as (3) were therefore considered specific:


Fifteen feet ahead of us, the ram hit the solid canyon wall dead on and then it flew

20Conversely an NP is generic when it applies to a whole class of individuals (Ali-Bouacha 1993: 2, Burton-Roberts 1981 in Galmiche 1985: 34, Larreya and Rivière 2005: 171). Utterances such as (4), which is about the prototypical male of a given species, were therefore considered as displaying a generic use of pronouns:


To construct its monumental tail, the male must divert valuable resources toward a body part that contributes nothing to its ability to compete for food.

21Putting the NP the male into the plural does not change the truth value of the utterance: it applies to the species as a whole.

22The data in the corpus, however, calls for a third type of utterance, in which the NP does not have a specific referent in the extralinguistic world, yet has a virtual one in a given virtual situation, so that the context cannot be construed as being truly generic either. This is illustrated by (5):


You need to grid-pattern the landscape. ‘Only fools rush in when they spot a big buck,’ Ward stresses. ’I’ve spent over an hour planning a stalk. You have to consider everything: terrain, wind direction, thermals, where the buck is bedded, where he might go. If I spot him in the evening, I may just wait and try him in the morning.’

23The plural would change the truth value of the utterance: in the virtual situation there is only one buck at a time. This type of utterance is termed ‘nonspecific’ by Burton-Roberts (1981) and constitutes a third type in his classification, distinct from specific or generic utterances. In the present study this idea of a threefold classification will be retained. The data falls down as follows:

Table 4 – Gender distribution according to context type
















24This table shows that references to animals by means of personal pronouns are much more common in specific contexts than in generic or nonspecific ones: they represent 74.9% of all references (550/734). What remains to be determined is whether there are any statistically significant differences in gender distribution across types. The neuter is used in 15.3% of generic references, 12.3% of nonspecific references and 18.9% of specific references. These differences in proportion are not found to be statistically significant (P = 0.297). If nonspecific references are removed and one considers only truly generic and truly specific references, the difference in proportion is not statistically significant either (P = 0.372). As a conclusion on variable 2, there is no evidence that utterance type has any influence on gender selection.

IV. Variable 3: genre

25The genres retained for analysis are those predefined in the COCA: magazines, fiction, newspapers, academic writing and spoken English. The spoken component is regarded by COCA’s designer, Mark Davies, as being representative of overall spoken English, but the fact that there is no free conversation might demand caution.

26Pronominal references to animals are found predominantly in magazines and fiction. Gender distribution according to genre is given in table 5.

Table 5 – Gender distribution across genres




Academic texts




















  • 7 The low number of occurrences for the spoken component might make this finding unreliable.
  • 8 OR stands for ‘odds ratio’, CI for ‘confidence interval’.

27The neuter is found in 12.5% of occurrences for magazines, 23.6% for fiction, 12.5% for newspapers, 20% for academic texts and only 4.2% for spoken utterances. Pearson’s chi square test shows that the differences in proportion are statistically significant (P = 0.002). Exactly what differences are concerned? There is no significant difference in proportion between magazines and newspapers (P = 0.993), magazines and academic texts (P = 0.195), fiction and newspapers (P = 0.084), fiction and academic texts (P = 0.612), newspapers and academic texts (P = 0.382) or spoken English and all of written English (P = 0.078)7. The only significant difference concerns magazines and fiction (P < 0.001). More specifically, the odds ratio estimate shows that in the corpus the neuter is 2.1 times more likely to occur in fiction than in magazines (OR = 2.152, 95% CI8 = 1.398 to 3.310, P < 0.001). This finding could be related to point of view. The magazines in which pronominal references to animals were found were mainly hunting and outdoor magazines and most of the articles concerned were shooting reports or hunting tips, which might favour a closer relationship to the animal than other types of writing. Fiction, on the other hand, presents animals that are not necessarily close to the speaker.

V. Variables 4 and 5: syntactic properties of the antecedent

28The first hypothesis to be checked here is as follows. If the animate genders are favoured when an animal is thought of in its individual aspect (Kruisinga and Erades 1960, Morris 1991) or when the speaker shows a greater degree of interest or empathy (Jespersen 1942, Huddleston and Pullum 2002), they might be expected to be more common when the antecedent is a definite NP than when it introduces the referent in discourse as indefinite. The distribution of genders according to the status of the antecedent is given in table 6. Occurrences of the male and the female were excluded for this analysis, as were three occurrences with determinative each, which is not marked for definiteness or indefiniteness.

Table 6 – Gender distribution according to the status of the antecedent

Indefinite NP

Definite NP










29The animate genders occur in 78.7% of anaphors with indefinite antecedents against 82.8% with definite antecedents. This difference in proportion is not found to be statistically significant (P = 0.193).

30The second hypothesis to be tested is whether the animate genders are favoured when the antecedent is a grammatical subject – regardless of whether it is definite or indefinite. Indeed, although the properties of a subject are notoriously difficult to define (e.g. Falk 2006) and although it can be associated with various thematic roles and various statuses in the information structure, it is prototypically associated with topichood (ibid. 6). As such, anaphors whose antecedent is a grammatical subject might be expected to favour animate genders.

Table 7 – Gender distribution according to the syntactic function of the antecedent

Antecedent = subject

Antecedent = other than subject










31The animate genders are found in 84.2% of anaphors whose antecedent is a subject, against 79.6% when the antecedent has another syntactic function. This difference in proportion is not statistically significant (P = 0.105).

As a conclusion on variables 4 and 5, there is no evidence of an influence of the antecedent (definiteness or subject status) on gender selection.

VI. Variable 6: syntactic function of the pronoun

32Although the hypothesis that subject function favours an animate gender has not been validated when applied to the antecedent, it needs to be tested on the anaphors themselves. This section first examines the overall distribution across syntactic functions, and then the specific subject vs. non-subject distinction:

  • 9 The corpus has no occurrences of indirect objects, that is, directly constructed objects such as he (...)

Table 8 – Gender distribution according to syntactic function9


Direct object

Complement of a preposition

Possessive determiner
















33The animate genders are used in 87.6% of anaphors occurring as subjects, 80.8% for direct objects, 78.1% for prepositional complements and 79.4% for possessive determiners. These differences in proportion are not statistically significant (P = 0.062). If possessive determiners are redistributed to the other three syntactic functions (e.g. if a possessive determiner in a subject NP is treated as being in subject position), however, the figures are as follows:

Table 9 – Gender distribution reduced to three syntactic functions


Direct object

Complement of a preposition
















34This time, the differences in proportions are statistically significant (P = 0.036). More specifically, table 10 shows that the subject function favours the animate genders (P = 0.036):

Table 10 – Gender distribution along the subject/non-subject distinction


Other function (incl. possessive in subject NP)












35The animate genders are 1.8 times more likely in subject position than in other syntactic functions (OR = 1.80, 95% CI = 1.166 to 2.790. P = 0.008).

If possessives in subject NPs are included as ‘subjects’, the difference in proportions remains statistically significant (P = 0.012):

Table 11 – Gender distribution along the subject/non-subject distinction – possessives in subject NPs treated as subjects

Subject (incl. possessive in subject NP)

Other function












36In this configuration, the animate genders are found to be nearly 1.7 times more likely to appear in subject position than in other functions (OR = 1.67, 95% CI = 1.118 to 2.506, P = 0.012).

VII. Conclusion

37This statistical analysis of gender use in references to animals whose sex is made explicit by the antecedent noun has enabled to establish a number of facts. First of all it confirms that point of view plays a decisive role in gender selection: the neuter is found in over 1/6 of occurrences (17.7%). Furthermore two variables were found to have a statistically significant influence on gender selection in discourse. In the corpus the animate genders are more likely to occur when the anaphor is in subject position (1.67 or 1.8 times more likely according to how possessives are considered) and 2.1 times more likely in magazines than in fiction. These factors might be directly related to point of view, namely topic status of the referent at the point when the anaphor is uttered, and hunting contexts, which favour closeness to the animal considered. Conversely there is no evidence that type of utterance (generic, nonspecific, specific), position of the anaphor relative to its antecedent (same clause, ...), genre distinctions other than magazines vs. fiction, or syntactic properties of the antecedent (definiteness or subject function) influence gender selection. These findings hold at the scale of the COCA, which is regarded as representative of American English in general. Corpus-based studies for other varieties of English would enable to establish whether they can be extended to English as a whole.

38Finally it can be noted, although this is not relevant to the study of gender, that pronominal references to animals strongly favour specific utterances (74.9%) and two genres (magazines and fiction as opposed to the other genres, 84.7%). They were also found predominantly within the same sentence as their antecedent (73.2%). This last fact confirms Ariel (1990, 1994, 1996)’s conclusion that personal pronouns are used for highly accessible referents. It also complements a sample study by Ariel (1990: 18) which seeks to determine in what contexts personal pronouns are favoured. In her sample of four texts of 2,200 words each personal pronouns are found to be used mostly in next-sentence contexts (60.5%) against 20.8% only for same-sentence environments. The larger corpus used in the present study, although it only concerns a subset of animal references and not all uses of personal pronouns, suggests that same-sentence contexts might be more highly favoured than predicted from Ariel’s sample.

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List of strictly sex-specific animal nouns for which a COCA search returned hits that were relevant for the study



- Pairs of species-specific nouns:



Billy (goat)

Nanny (goat)





- Species-specific nouns that are not part of a pair of strictly sex-specific nouns:












Queen bee





- Sex-specific nouns denoting animals of more than one species:










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1 Bold case mine, as in all the examples given here.

2 NPs in which the sex is specified by a modifier (e.g. a male horse) were not included in the study so as to enable a comparison between occurrences which all share a single configuration – a gendered anaphor with a sex-specific antecedent noun.

3 Quirk et al. (1985: 317) mention the possible influence of the distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ animals, but this variable could not be tested here due to the lack of references to distinctly ‘lower animals’ in the corpus.

4 Ordan and Wintner (2005) draw a tentative list of sex-specific nouns for their project of multilingual lexical databases for natural gender, but many nouns were found to be missing.

5 To these must be added 2 occurrences of she 2 sentences away from the antecedent and 1 of he 4 sentences away.

6 This value is Pearson’s chi square corrected from continuity using the Monte Carlo procedure with 10,000 replications.

7 The low number of occurrences for the spoken component might make this finding unreliable.

8 OR stands for ‘odds ratio’, CI for ‘confidence interval’.

9 The corpus has no occurrences of indirect objects, that is, directly constructed objects such as her in John gave her a watch.

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Bibliographical reference

Laure Gardelle, « Pronominal gender in references to animals », Anglophonia/Sigma, 16 (32) | 2012, 11-23.

Electronic reference

Laure Gardelle, « Pronominal gender in references to animals », Anglophonia/Sigma [Online], 16 (32) | 2012, Online since 24 December 2013, connection on 22 June 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/anglophonia.127

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Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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