I just read this rule in Greek Essential Grammar:

enter image description here

This passage says that, in the Greek sentence for "Mary is a nice person", the adjective nice is masculine because it must agree with the masculine noun person. The rule seems logical, but I wonder why it was included in the book in the first place. Are there languages where, all else being equal, nice would have to be put in a feminine form, i.e. to agree with the feminine noun Mary?

  • 4
    @fdb I don’t see why this should reflect badly on the authors of GEG. The section is there because students who come from ungendered languages can often be confused by sentences like this one, thinking that biological sex should logically trump grammatical gender. The section does not imply that it would be common in other languages to use the feminine form of nice in a case like this; it just clarifies how grammatical gender works (in Greek, as well as all other gendered languages I’m familiar with). This is a good thing to do in an essential grammar. Oct 4, 2023 at 10:27
  • 1
    I assume the reason to add that into the grammar book is the following: if you say “Maria is nice”, then “nice” should be in the feminine gender (καλή), and this is a pretty typical way to speak. But if you add “person” at the end, the gender of “nice” changes to masculine (καλός). A little pause before the last word “person” can cause some confusion as for the gender agreement, before the sentence is not yet spoken till the very end.
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 4, 2023 at 10:48
  • I wonder if answers to this question may have interesting implications for the idea of structure dependency.
    – Graham H.
    Oct 4, 2023 at 19:47
  • 1
    "Are there languages where, all else being equal, nice would have to be put in a feminine form, i.e. to agree with the feminine noun Mary?" is a good question, the post's current title is misleading though. Oct 4, 2023 at 22:58

2 Answers 2


I agree that possibly in no language it works the other way, but consider the following.

In Russian there are nouns of common gender. This means they can be masculine or feminine depending on the biological gender of the person they denote:

Ольга Викторовна - хорошая судья.
Olga Viktorovna(fem) is a good(fem) judge(com).


Олег Викторович - хороший судья.
Oleg Viktorovich(masc) is a good(masc) judge(com).

Moreover, if the noun has no biological gender, grammatical gender will be used:

Удача - хорошая судья.
Fortune(fem) is a good(fem) judge(com).

Искусственный интеллект - хороший судья.
Artificial intelligence(masc) is a good(masc) judge(com).

Technically, you can say that nouns of common gender take the gender depending on context.

  • 1
    Common gender also in (classical) Greek, like bous "bull, cow".
    – fdb
    Oct 4, 2023 at 12:14
  • Why is the downvote?
    – Anixx
    Oct 4, 2023 at 12:46

I assume your question is not why the author of a grammar would state a fact about a language when no known languages act contrarily, it is whether any languages act contrarily. I don't know why you expect the Greek case (I do as well, I thought I'd tell you why Greek is expected, also why that basis is not invariant across languages).

The general rule is that a nominal modifier agrees with the head of its phrase. At the lowest level, that would mean that adjectives agree with the head noun in the NP, then determiners will agree in gender with the NP and verbs will agree with the DP. Sometimes there are conflicting genders (when there are multiple nominals with different features), for example "the cat and the cow" where the entire conjunction can't have both cat-gender and cow-gender, therefore the conflict must be resolved. Or, "The cat / cow is a monster". In the latter case the general rule is that the verb (if any) agrees with the subject rather than the object.

Greek reflects this typical logic for resolving agreement conflicts, but not all languages do. Shona has 19 genders divided into formal vs. semantic groups, where formal genders are those that are lexically fixed and semantic one are non-lexical and reflect derived semantics (locatives, augmentatives and diminutives). Modifiers agree with the head noun, thus chi-toro chi-kuru 'big store' (lit. 'store big'), zvi-toro zvi-kuru 'big stores', mw-ana mu-kuru 'big child'. The head can have two genders, one semantic locative and the other formal lexical: adjectives can agree with either (ku-chi-toro chi-kuru or ku-chi-toro ku-kuru 'to the big store'). There are various ways to make theoretical sense of this, for example either attach the adjective under the lower NP or under the higher locative PP; or make the lower noun gender optionally invisible or the higher locative gender transparent. There is a simple explanation, but it isn't self-evident how you get these two patterns, therefore the grammarian is obligated to explicitly recognize the facts.

Relative pronouns agree in gender with the clause internal gap which is the head, as in chi-toro cha ndakaona __ 'the store which I saw' (lit. 'store which I-saw'). Here, we cannot tell if the relative complementizer agrees with the overt higher head chitoro or the lower trace, because the features are the same. We expect theoretically that agreement is with the overt noun chitoro because "which I saw" is a modifier of "store".

The internal head can also be locative, since you can say ndakaenda ku-chitoro 'I went to the store', and agreement can be with the lexical class. When the nominal is locative in the lower clause (not the higher clause), there are still two patterns of agreement on the higher relative pronoun: lexical (vakaona chi-toro cha ndakaenda __ 'they saw the store which I went to' lit. 'they-saw store which I-went'), and semantic (vakaona chi-toro kwa ndakaenda __ lit. 'they-saw store to-which I-went').

The puzzle here is, why does the higher relative complementizer kwa- optionally agree with the "upper" gender which disagrees with the overt head's gender, and does not mandatorily agree with the overt N's lexical gender? This may cause some theoretical distress, but descriptively speaking the generalization is clear: relative pronouns can agree formally or semantically, and sometimes that gives different agreement patterns.

Linguists who have a modicum of knowledge of crosslinguistic variability in how agreement words will therefore tend to explicitly state the ordinary case, when they know that the ordinary case is not mandatory in all languages.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.