Animals‏‎ in English Grammar

English Usage

A pretty snail climbing out of a wine glass.This article looks at how we talk about Animals in English grammar‏‎.

The main issue for learners of English are personal pronouns‏‎ and animals. Do we talk about an animal as he, she or it?

Personal Pronouns

To begin with, when talking about animals we generally use the personal pronouns‏‎ it and they:

Where’s the dog? It’s run off again, I think.

The birds are flying south for Winter; they are leaving early this year.

However, if the animal we are referring to is a pet (either our own or belonging to someone else) then we’ll almost always use a gender specific pronoun:

Rover’s been a bad boy! He’s dug up the garden and buried his bone again!

Personalizing Animals

We can also use he or she to refer to any animal (not just pets) when we want to personalize them. That is, when when we want to talk about the animal as an individual with its own character rather than just one of a crowd.

The lion has been out hunting but he returns empty handed.

Look at this mole! Isn’t he so cute?

Male/Female Distinction

Many animals – especially those which are so-called ‘working’ animals (i.e. on a farm) – have different names for the male and female.

  • bull and cow
  • cock and hen
  • stallion and mare

Professionals (vets or farmers) working with animals will often use this distinction.

However the general public may sometimes use a more generic term. For example, most people will talk about a horse rather than a stallion or mare; or talk about a chicken rather than a cock or hen

If there is no gender specific term for the male or female of an animal, we have to specify it like this:

the male frog
female newt

Collective Nouns

In English there are special terms for groups of animals called collective nouns. This dates back to the great hunting tradition of England from the Middle Ages onwards. These words are often evocative and poetic.

Some examples include:

  • A sedge of cranes
  • A convocation of eagles
  • A flight of swallows

See the main article, Collective Nouns‏‎ in English Grammar, for more on this.

image © paperpariah

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