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Gender/sex discrepancies in pronominal references to animals: a statistical analysis1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2013

15 parvis René Descartes, English Department / UMR ICAR (CNRS section 34), Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, 69007 Lyon,


Although the English gender system is a semantic system largely based on sex, it is well known that in references to animals there is widespread discrepancy between pronominal gender and sex, and that gender selection is dependent on speaker's point of view (degree of interest in the animal, projection of personality and so on). What is yet to be established, however, is whether point of view still prevails in references to animals when the antecedent noun specifies the sex of the referent (e.g. stallion, ewe). In that case the neuter is known to occur but there is no quantitative assessment of the phenomenon, although it is crucial to understanding the influence of sex on gender selection. This article therefore proposes a statistical analysis of gender use in personal pronouns focusing exclusively on cases in which the antecedent noun specifies the sex of the animal. The analysis is carried out at the scale of the multi-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), using Pearson's chi-square test complemented by the odds ratio estimate. Three questions are considered: how common is the neuter? Is its relative frequency the same with female animals as with males? Finally, do the proportions vary according to the position of the anaphor relative to its antecedent?

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013

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Special thanks are due to Rodney Huddleston for his most valuable comments on an earlier draft of this article. I also wish to thank Bas Aarts and two anonymous referees of ELL for their very helpful suggestions.


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