God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Why Both Kings and Queens Can Be Parents

Grammatical and Real-World Gender, Part II

Earlier, I wrote about the difference between grammatical gender and real-world (or semantic) gender. I noted that the former doesn’t always indicate the latter. For example, personne in French is grammatically feminine but semantically inclusive.

As promised, here’s a little bit about how to tease the two kinds of gender apart.


One good way is to use ellipsis, such as “and so did…” or “and so is….” because ellipsis requires meanings to match up (semantic identity) but not the grammar.

For example:

(1) John went to the party and so did Mary.

It’s clear that the second half of the sentence is short for “Mary went to the party,” even though “and so did Mary went to the party” isn’t grammatical in English. In other words, ellipsis here copies the meaning of “went” but not the grammar of “went.”

Another example comes from:

(2) John loves his mother and so does Mary.

This is ambiguous. Either Mary loves John’s mother, or Mary loves her own mother. This second meaning is particularly interesting for us, because it shows us again that the “and so” ellipsis construction copies meaning and not form. (We also learn that “his” and “her” in English mean the same thing.)

Ellipsis In English

With this in mind, we can compare four sentences:

(3) John is an actor and so is Mary.

(4) John is a parent and so is Mary.

(5) *John is a father and so is Mary.

(6) *John is a king and so is Mary.

The asterisks indicate the ungrammatical sentences.

The examples in (3) and (4) are fine because “actor” and “parent” in English are gender-neutral in the real world. That is, men and women can both be actors and parents, even in the dialects that use the word “actress” for a woman actor.

By contrast, in English, only men can be fathers and kings.

Ellipsis In Other Languages

The reason this is so important is that the pattern in (3)-(6) is the same even in languages that have grammatical gender. For example, in Modern Hebrew:

(3′) John sachkan v’gam Mary [lit.: John actor and-also Mary]

(4′) John horeh v’gam Mary [lit.: John parent and-also Mary]

(5′) *John aba v’gam Mary [lit.: John father and-also Mary]

(6′) *John melech v’gam Mary [lit.: John king and-also Mary]

Just to be clear, (3′) is grammatical in Hebrew even though *Mary sachkan [“Mary actor”] is not, because Hebrew requires Mary sachkanit [“Mary actress”]. In other words, Hebrew has masculine and feminine words for “actor” (sachkan and sachkanit, respectively). Generally, the masculine word is used for men, and the feminine for women. But we see from ellipses that this difference is purely a matter of grammar, not of meaning.

Toward Two Kinds of Gender

The pattern in (3)-(6) and (3′)-(6′) works the same way in modern languages across diverse language groups: German, French, Russian, Arabic, and more. In other words, kings and queens seem to be different in ways that actors and actresses are not, and the difference doesn’t depend on which language is used to express it.

Some languages have masculine and feminine forms for “actor” and “actress,” but even so, ellipsis shows us that the words mean the same thing.

Further investigation shows us that the following kinds of words are the same for men and women: nouns in general, including jobs, positions, functions, roles, etc. By contrast, the following are generally not: royalty (king, queen, and sometimes lower ranks), family roles (father, mother, and sometimes son, daughter, brother, sister), and gender roles (man, women).

A Note on Parenthood

We stop to note that this answers an important question: In languages that have grammatical gender, what’s the difference between “father” and “[male] parent,” or between “mother” and “[female] parent”? The answer is that, like in English, “parent” is the non-gendered word, while “mother” and “father” are the gendered words. In other words, both men and women can be parents, but only men can be fathers, and only women mothers. This fact doesn’t depend on the grammatical gender of any of the words involved. (As chance would have it, “parent” in Modern Hebrew is horeh, and the word is masculine. There is no feminine word “parent.”)

Some Results

Because all languages seem to work the same way in the core cases, we can use the data about modern languages to understand ancient ones. What we expect, and what we find, is that ancient Greek and Hebrew have grammatical gender that only sometimes matches up with real-world gender.

In particular, basileus and melech are specifically a man (“king”), while basilissa and malka are specifically a woman (“queen”). They do not mean “ruler.” Similarly, patros and av are masculine in the real word (semantically) as well as grammatically, and meter and em are feminine. They do not mean “parent.”


It is tempting to extrapolate the pattern we have seen with singular nouns and apply it to plural ones, too, but it’s a mistake — a topic I’ll turn to soon.


September 8, 2009 - Posted by | translation theory | , , , , ,


  1. I think (5) and (6) are semantically incorrect, but not grammatically incorrect. Consider:

    5” John is a father and so is Pat.

    which is wrong only if Pat is female, not male: a fact about the world, not a fact about the structure of language. Especially, which you can do the usual semantic tricks. The following sentence is fine:

    5”’ John is a father and so is Mary–in fact, she was the first female sperm donor in history.

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | September 8, 2009

    • It’s a good observation.

      And there are other ways Mary can be a father: “Tragically, Mary’s husband died, so she had to be mother and father to her children.”

      My overall point is that ellipsis equates “actor” with “actress” but not “father” with “mother” or “king” with “queen.”

      (And incidentally, this points to a “yes” answer to Mike Aubrey’s question, “Is everything metaphor?”)

      Comment by Joel | September 8, 2009

  2. I think kings==queens in the following ellipsis, doesn’t it?

    King William honored his fellow kings, and Mary honored hers.

    Comment by Will Fitzgerald | September 8, 2009

    • King William honored his fellow kings, and Mary honored hers.

      This is a great example. Thanks!

      For me, “hers” cannot mean “fellow queens” (though “Mary” is “Queen Mary”), but I guess for you it can.

      I don’t think it’s true ellipsis, though. There is another phenomenon of language that in my opinion hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Anticedants can be established contextually, if the context is strong enough. For example, in a bar:

      MAN: “Are you alone?”

      WOMAN: “He’s coming right back.”

      The “he” here refers to whichever woman is with the man, even though the presence of a(nother) man has only been established by very vague reference (“are you alone?”).

      Circumstances have to be just right to get this to work. The ostensibly similar:

      MAN: “If you’re not here alone would you consider leaving him?”

      doesn’t work at all.

      True ellipsis doesn’t depend so closely on the exact right context. So the pair:

      (a) *William knew that someday he would join the ranks of kings and so did Mary. [It only means, “Mary knew that William would….”]

      (b) William knew that someday he would join the ranks of royalty and so did Mary.

      is more helpful.

      But yours certainly a great example.

      Comment by Joel | September 8, 2009

      • Thanks … I’ve been testing my example on several (non linguist) people, and no one thinks that ‘fellow queens’ is a proper reading.

        Comment by Will Fitzgerald | September 9, 2009

  3. I’m inclined to put it this way in my actual speech: “John went to the party and so went Mary.”

    Comment by Largo | December 30, 2010

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