grammatical gender

Save This Word!

noun Grammar.
gender based on arbitrary assignment, without regard to the referent of a noun, as in French le livre (masculine), “the book,” and German das Mädchen (neuter), “the girl.”
There are grammar debates that never die; and the ones highlighted in the questions in this quiz are sure to rile everyone up once again. Do you know how to answer the questions that cause some of the greatest grammar debates?
Question 1 of 7
Which sentence is correct?
Compare natural gender.

Origin of grammatical gender

First recorded in 1870–75
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is grammatical gender?

Grammatical gender is a way of classifying nouns that unpredictably assigns them gender categories that are often not related to their real-world qualities. For example, in French, the grammatical gender of la maison (“the house”) is classified as feminine, while le livre (“the book”) is classified as masculine. Grammatical gender is not used in English.

Grammatical in this phrase means relating to grammar, which is basically the rules of how to construct sentences in a language. The word gender here is not really related to the way that humans identify themselves in real life. In many languages, the grammatical gender of a word affects how other words can be used with it in a sentence. The three most commonly used grammatical gender categories are masculine, feminine, and neuter, but each language differs.

Grammatical gender is contrasted with natural gender or naturalistic gender, in which nouns are classified in ways that align with their real-world qualities. Girl and boy are examples of nouns with naturalistic gender. (In English, this matters because those words can be replaced with gendered pronouns like she and he.)

Why do languages have grammatical gender?

How can the German word for girl be classified as neuter while the word for turnip is classified as feminine? This tidbit of German linguistic trivia, once remarked upon by Mark Twain, shows the random nature of grammatical gender. Gender has been used as a grammatical term since at least the late 1300s and continues to be a part of the way linguists and grammarians talk about language today.

 Grammatical gender is really just a way of sorting nouns into different categories. Other systems of noun classification may take other qualities into account, such as the noun’s shape or whether it is alive. The purpose of putting a noun in such a category is typically so that other parts of the sentence can then match it somehow: a sentence’s main verb may have to agree with the noun that is the subject, or an adjective in the sentence may have to agree with the noun that it describes. This gender-based agreement is usually accomplished by changing some aspect of the word, such as the ending. In Spanish, for example, feminine nouns typically end in -a, while masculine nouns typically end in -o. Any adjectives being used to describe those nouns usually must have a matching -a or -o ending.

The important thing to understand about grammatical gender is that it is to some degree arbitrary. This means that whether a noun is classified as masculine or feminine (or another gender) usually isn’t something you can figure out—you just have to memorize it. (There’s no other way you could know why a chair is considered masculine in one language and feminine in another.)

Masculine, feminine, and neuter aren’t the only grammatical gender categories, either. Some languages use more than 20 different categories. As strange and confusing as it may sound to English speakers, grammatical gender exists in about 40 percent of the world’s languages, including many widely spoken ones, like Spanish, French, Arabic, and German. Learning grammatical gender is usually essential in order to master such languages.

Did you know ... ?

English doesn’t use grammatical gender now, but it was a feature of Old English, including its articles.

What are the real-life examples of grammatical gender?

So why doesn’t English use grammatical gender? Check out this video for an explanation of what’s going on with English.


What are some other words related to grammatical gender?

Quiz yourself!

True or false? 

In languages that use grammatical gender, words with a certain gender often have to agree with other words in the sentence.

How to use grammatical gender in a sentence