A noun may belong to a given class because of characteristic features of its referent, such as sex, animacy, shape, although in some instances a noun can be placed in a particular class based purely on its grammatical behavior. Some authors use the term "grammatical gender" as a synonym of "noun class", but others use different definitions for each.
Grammatical gender can be realized as inflection and can be conditioned by other types of inflection, especially number inflection, where the singular-plural contrast can interact with gender inflection.
The grammatical gender of a noun manifests itself in two principal ways: in the modifications that the noun itself undergoes, and in modifications of other related words (agreement).
The two sentences above mean literally "much obliged"; the adjective agrees with the natural gender of the speaker, that is, with the gender of the first person pronoun which does not appear explicitly here.
For other situations in which such a "default" gender assignment may be required, see § Contextual determination of gender below.
The natural gender of a noun, pronoun or noun phrase is a gender to which it would be expected to belong based on relevant attributes of its referent. Although grammatical gender can coincide with natural gender, it need not.
When a noun with conflicting natural and grammatical gender is the antecedent of a pronoun, it may not be clear which gender of pronoun to choose. There is a certain tendency to keep the grammatical gender when a close back-reference is made, but to switch to natural gender when the reference is further away. For example, in German, the sentences "The girl has come home from school. She is now doing her homework" can be translated in two ways:
There are three main ways by which natural languages categorize nouns into genders:
In most languages that have grammatical gender, a combination of these three types of criteria is found, although one type may be more prevalent.
In many languages, nouns are assigned to gender largely without any semantic basis—that is, not based on any feature (such as animacy or sex) of the person or thing that a noun represents. In such languages there may be a correlation, to a greater or lesser degree, between gender and the form of a noun (such as the vowel or consonant or syllable with which it ends).
In some languages, nouns with human references have two forms, a male and a female one. This includes not only proper names, but also names for occupations and nationalities. Examples include:
In some languages, gender is determined by strictly semantic criteria, but in other languages, semantic criteria only partially determine gender.
There are certain situations where the assignment of gender to a noun, pronoun or noun phrase may not be straightforward. This includes in particular:
However, when referring to previously unmentioned groups of people or when referring to people in a generic way, especially when using an indefinite pronoun like 'some' or 'all', the masculine plural is used. For example:
An example contrasting the two ways to refer to groups is the following, taken from advertisements of Christian congregations announcing their meetings:
Related languages need not assign the same gender to a noun: this shows that gender can vary across related languages. Conversely, unrelated languages that are in contact can impact how a borrowed noun is assigned gender, with either the borrowing or the donor language determining the gender of the borrowed word.
Some more examples of the above phenomena are given below. (These come mostly from the Slavic languages, where gender largely correlates with the noun ending.)
Many Indo-European languages, but not English, provide archetypical examples of grammatical gender.
Although grammatical gender was a fully productive inflectional category in Old English, Modern English has a much less pervasive gender system, primarily based on natural gender and reflected essentially in pronouns only.
In Russian, the different treatment of animate nouns involves their accusative case (and that of adjectives qualifying them) being formed identically to the genitive rather than to the nominative. In the singular that applies to masculine nouns only, but in the plural it applies in all genders. See Russian declension.
A similar system applies in Czech, but the situation is somewhat different in the plural: Only masculine nouns are affected, and the distinctive feature is a distinct inflective ending for masculine animate nouns in the nominative plural and for adjectives and verbs agreeing with those nouns. See Czech declension.
Polish might be said to distinguish five genders: personal masculine (referring to male humans), animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter. The animate–inanimate opposition for the masculine gender applies in the singular, and the personal–impersonal opposition, which classes animals along with inanimate objects, applies in the plural. (A few nouns denoting inanimate things are treated grammatically as animate and vice versa.) The manifestations of the differences are as follows: