I mean obligatorily marking a word for number, gender, animacy, direction etc, I don't actually know what I'm asking about.

For example, in English, we have that awkward situation where we don't know if the cat in the box is dead or alive, and might not know if it is a she or he, so is it an it, he or she (or singular they)? I'm sure style guides have rules for this, or maybe not.

I tried to ask a similar question about Russian which has a puacal number (single, a few, many) marked on nouns. On that site, the native speakers didn't understand the question and only repeated the style guideline rule. For example, "Tell me about your problems" -- Would a speaker have to get into a big circumlocution to avoid implying that a person has exactly 1, 2-5, or more than 5? (Tell me about your problem or your 2 to 5 problems or your list of problems greater than five)

Guugu Yimithirr is famous for requiring a north/south/east/west orientation just to utter certain words. I wondered how they would discuss things on a erratically spinning asteroid, in the fictional book Flatland, or if they just didn't know.

Also, in Icelandic, I've asked people how they deal with inanimate collections of mixed or unknown genders-- since there are 3 ways to say "they" (a collection of bus alone, cars alone is different from a mixed collection of buses and cars)

Are there any recognized patterns on this topic?

  • 1
    I think there are different patterns even for the same kind of thing, but some patterns seem to be prevalent in many (most?) Indo-European languages. A person of unknown sex is usually masculine (although the plural is also used in English, as you know). I think singular is usually used if the number is unknown, as in who is it? I think inanimate is the default if animacy is unknown: I saw something (not *I saw someone; I think it was either a bush or a man).
    – Cerberus
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 17:01
  • 2
    This isn't a standard use of the term 'grammaticalisation' - it's normally used to describe a diachronic change of a form from lexical to functional. Anyway, semanticists have tried to capture e.g. observations made by @cerberus by a principle called 'maximise presupposition' (see, e.g. Schlenker, 2006: linguistics.ucla.edu/people/schlenker/MaxPres.pdf). The idea is that 'she' triggers a presupposition that the referent is female, whereas 'he' doesn't trigger any (gender) presupposition. This analysis captures the fact that 'he' is used in certain Englishes when gender isn't known.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 19:00
  • @Cerberus, you can say "who is it?" even if the plurality is known, just like you can say "it's the 7 dwarfs".
    – dainichi
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 22:56
  • @dainichi the two examples you give are truncated clefts - there's an understood relative that's omitted modulo context, i.e. "who is it that's at the door?", or "it's the 7 dwarfs that just arrived". The cleft pivot must be a focus. "who is it" means something different to "who is IT?" (with focus on it). it in the examples you give isn't referential in the sense that he in "who is HE?" is. There are different analyses of truncated clefts, e.g. that it denotes a property, but it's clearly not a referential pronoun.
    – P Elliott
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 1:30
  • @PElliott, yes it was exactly my intention to point out that the "it" in "who is it?" has nothing to do with not knowing the number/animacy.
    – dainichi
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 1:54

2 Answers 2


The question concerns why certain semantic features seem to be 'unmarked'. As an example, we can consider the fact that, at least in certain (especially older) varieties of English, the masculine pronoun he/him is used as the 'default'. Consider a scenario where a class consisting of both male and female students have finished their homework, (1) is generally considered to be felicitous, whereas (2) is not:

(1) Every student has finished his homework
(2) # Every student has finished her homework

(2) is only licit in a scenario where it is known by the speaker that every student who has finished her homework is female.

Within formal semantics, so-called 'phi-features', such as gender features, are modelled as presupposition triggers. This means that a gendered pronoun is treated in formal semantics as a partial function from individuals to individuals. For example, we can treat the denotation of 'she' as a partial function from individuals to individuals just in case the referent is female - the output of the function is undefined for non-female referents. We capture the unmarkedness of 'he' by not associating the feature [masculine] with any presupposition. Semantically, 'he' merely denotes the referent. The feature [masculine] is semantically vacuous.

We now introduce the pragmatic principle 'maximise presupposition', which means, without getting into the formal specifics, that given a set of alternative sentences, we prefer to use the alternative that is presuppositionally stronger. This explains the fact that, if all students are known to be female, (2) is licit, whereas (1) is not. (1) and (2) are semantically identical aside from the fact that (2) is presuppositionally stronger, and in this instance, the presupposition associated with (2) (that every student is female) is satisfied.

The masculine pronoun can only be used when the presupposition associated with the feminine pronoun is not met. (2) presupposes that for each student, that student is female. In a scenario with a mixed-gendered class, the presupposition is not met, which explains why (2) is infelicitous in this scenario, whereas (1) is not. Since [masculine] does not introduce any presupposition, the masculine pronoun may be used in a mixed-gender scenario.

Similar analyses can be (and have been) given for animacy and number features. See Yasutada Sudo's (2012) thesis for an excellent overview of the pertinent data and the formal specifics of the kind of analysis i outline here: http://web.mit.edu/ysudo/www/pdf/dissertation-final.pdf

Note Before someone points it out, i want to make it clear that in my English, the masculine pronoun isn't unmarked. Rather i use the plural pronoun 'they' as a bound pronoun in a mixed gender scenario, or in a scenario where gender isn't known. It's relatively trivial to give an account of this variety in a similar framework: We simply say that both [masculine] and [feminine] are presupposition triggers, whereas 'they' is semantically vacuous. The role of number features introduces additional complications here, but they can be accommodated. See the linked-to thesis for details.

  • 1
    Well said. I use he as the neutral pronoun. And I might say "we try to be as specific as possible in language"; do you think that is a fair rendering of your pragmatic principle?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 2:27
  • More or less, yeah, and it's crucial that [masculine] is treated as a non-gender - that is to say that it doesn't have any semantic effect. There's actually a paper by Phillipe Schlenker where he tries to reduce maximize presupposition to standard Gricean principles, which sounds like what you have in mind: linguistics.ucla.edu/people/schlenker/MaxPres.pdf
    – P Elliott
    Commented Sep 13, 2013 at 10:50

I agree with P Elliott and his explanation that this is a question of markedness. His examples are from English, which has natural, but not grammatical gender. It might be interesting to see how this works in a language that has grammatical gender, and where grammatical gender usually trumps natural gender.

In German, all nouns are marked for gender (= grammatical gender). Then noun die Katze (cat) is female, i.e. female is the unmarked gender for cats. There is also a male variant, der Kater.

Female die Katze or the pronoun sie is used if

  • the speaker does not know the sex of the cat
  • the speaker knows the sex of the cat, but does not want to specify it
  • the speaker knows the sex of the cat, wants to specify it, and the cat is female.

Male der Kater or the pronoun er is used if

  • the speaker knows the sex of the cat, wants to specify it, and the cat is male.

Nouns referring to persons also pose an interesting problem. Das Kind (child) and das Mädchen (girl) are both neuter, which suggests that the unmarked grammatical gender for pronouns referring to them is also neuter. Indeed, prescriptive German grammar has it that neuter nouns can only be referred to by neuter pronouns, as in this example:

  • Hast du das Mädchen gesehen? Es geht in diesselbe Schule wie ich.
  • Have you seen that (neuter) girl? She (neuter) is in the same school as I.

However, in spoken German this is quite uncommon and only used in formal contexts. The colloquial variant has natural gender trump grammatical gender:

  • Hast du das Mädchen gesehen? Sie geht in diesselbe Schule wie ich.
  • Have you seen that (neuter) girl? She (female) is in the same school as I.

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