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When to use gender-specific nouns?

Could anyone offer advice on when to generally use gender-specific nouns (Arzt vs Ärztin, and so on), and give some insight as to 'how it sounds' when over-/underused?

What I mean by this is that I'm already aware to use the -in suffix on most professions, and that nominalised adjectives are declined according to gender (ein Deutscher, eine Deutsche), but there are some 'grey areas' where I'm not sure whether it's necessary or not.

For instance, I would like to leave a review on blablacar.de saying that someone is a friendly conversation partner. Would I be better saying that she is ein freundlicher Gesprächspartner or eine freundliche Gesprächspartnerin? The way I see it is that Person doesn't have a gender-specific form so why does something generic like Partner need one? Is it acceptable to use the generic/masculine form here, or will it sound obviously foreign or ignorant since it doesn't match her gender? Conversely, would it sound overly picky or condescending to use the feminine form? If it's totally clear one way or the other in this specific example, are there other situations you could think of where it would be a grey area to a German too?

Thanks in advance!

November 15, 2017



Hi az_p,

stepintime wrote a very good explanation! It really depends on how correctly you want to be. And in my personal opinion what gender you have. For me as a woman it is easier to say just Gesprächspartner or Arzt. If a man says the same thing he is faster in a tight corner than me (to be seen as a sexist). Unfair? Yes!

The problem with the german language is that you have for almost everything a male and a female version. In English it is much easier. A doctor is a doctor no matter which gender is coming through the door.

So if you have a informal conversation it is not so important. You can make very quickly clear what you mean and how you mean it (voice, mimic ect.) In formal conversations be a little bit more careful (if you don't know your conterpart very well) If you know that it is a female you talking about use the female word variation, if you know that the group you are talking about is mixed gender use one of the examples stepintime gave you. If you are not sure, too. Just to be save.

Me personally, I'm not a big fan of this all PartnerInnen or Partner und Partnerinnen thing. If I ask for a painter I want you to tell me who's a good worker not the gender. If the work is well done what do I care of the gender? As a woman I don't want to be always reminded that I'm allowed to take part in the working environment or at public discussions. But other women will disagree to this point of view vehemently.

At the end it may help if you ask at the start of a conversation or that you make your point of view clear. In written context... if you want to be on the save path include both genders.

best regards Angel

  • 1265

I know that in America several years ago woman actors hated being called "actresses" that they were as much of an "actor" as any male. I glad we have only a few professions where we have to attach gender to the title.


In a private environment I would always use the male form, if the gender is unknown or undefined. If I talk about functions (driver, painter, writer) I would also use the male form, even if I talk to a woman. In a formal environment you have to take more care and specify the gender, if it's known (Frau Meier ist eine gute Fahrerin). If the gender is unspecified, you can read a lot of bulky or strange forms like "Die Schülerinnen und Schüler müssen rechtzeitig zum Unterricht erscheinen", "Die SchülerInnen müssen...." "Die Lernenden müssen...." (The latter form is very popular in my university. Here, web content has to be written in a gender-neutral form, for example die Studierenden could be male as well as female in plural, unlike die Studenten, which is male and has a different female form.)


There's a bit of a discussion going on, actually. Some people are very picky about using words that include every gender; in addition to what Max.Em already listed, there have been suggestions to use e.g. "die Student*innen" where the asterisk includes all the trans/inter/... persons as well (which is being used sometimes) or even "die Studentx" (which obviously isn't popular). Some people think there's way too much fussing over the "gender issue"; some point out that there's a difference between grammatical and biological gender and that "der Student (is obliged to hand in the paper)", although grammatically male, does already include female students (and everyone else). So it really depends on how politically correct you want to be (or your audience is).

In my book, the middle ground would be to use "StudentInnen" (with a capital "i") in written form, which has been in use for quite a while now. If you like, you can add the asterisk without looking overly obsessive - lately, I've been seeing it done that way increasingly often, so I suppose that's what the standard version will be in a while.

(Actually, today, if you hand in a paper at the university which doesn't include the "inner I" (Binnen-I) or at the very least a disclaimer that for the sake of readability you're going to write "Studenten" but intend it to include all genders, points will be deducted.)

In spoken language, I'd always use "Studenten", personally. If you're e.g. doing a presentation, however, you should go for "Studentinnen und Studenten".

Now, getting closer to the question at hand :), if you know that the person you're talking/writing about is female, you should definitely use the female word: "Sie ist eine gute Ärztin."

As for "Gesprächspartner", well, I guess you're right that "Partner" is one word that doesn't seem to need a gender-specific form as much as e.g. "Arzt / Ärztin", at least to me. Similarly: a "Partner" in a relationship. It doesn't sound actually straight-out wrong to me to say "Sie ist ein guter Gesprächspartner" or "Mein Partner (girlfriend) sagt, ..." - but it'd sound more or less odd not to use "Partnerin" (especially for "girlfriend"). Using the female word ("Gesprächspartnerin" in your blablacar example) would definitely be the normal way.


    Just what I wanted to know - thankyou! :)


    You're welcome!

    I wonder whether those who downvoted me think I was a) too supportive of the asterisk, or b) too misogynic about "Partner" ;-)

    (I suppose I just insulted everyone equally, so that's okay :) )


      Bizarre. Assuming it's not just spam downvotes, I'd like to know what points others disagree on.


      I agree. After all, we're all here to learn. Just disagreeing about the general ideas of gender fairness isn't much use on a language forum - if that's what the downvotes are about. Naturally there's things I wrote where others will have a different experience (e.g. how often you come across an asterisk or what phrases someone uses), but I did try to stick to the "facts" (as they present themselves to me), because it's no help to learners if I push one idea/opinion/"agenda" or another for my own purposes. I'm sure none of us want a lengthy discussion about the topic, though :)

      And by the way, I agree with what RedAngel666 wrote, too.

      And maybe I should add that in fictional / narrative texts it's just the normal plural, never an "inner i" or something.


      Hi stepintime,

      when discussions are going complicated some people get annoyed and dislike it. Just ignore the downvotes and have another lingot for your well-grounded and good post. az_p appreciated your answer and it was helpful for him/her. That's what counts.

      Best regards Angel


      Hi Angel,

      thank you for your kind words - I'll make that a lingot for you, too :)

      I really don't mind the downvotes, I know it's both a controversial topic and a lengthy text. No worries!

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