So in French, for people, feminine words tend to derive from masculine words, and masculine is generally the "default" gender, so when you're talking about an unspecified person or group of mixed gender, you use the masculine pronouns "il(s)".

But what about animals? Lots of animal names are, by default, feminine, such as "souris", "girafe", "chèvre", etc. What would the "default" third person pronouns be here? If you're talking about an unspecified goat, do you use "elle" or "il"?

Also, if there's no masculine name (such "bouc" for male goats), how do you refer to male animals with feminine names, such as "girafe"?

2 Answers 2


First of all saying that "feminine words tend to derive from masculine words, and masculine is generally the "default" gender," is most likely a false assumption that is not for discussion here.

What about animals?
The majority of animal names are generic terms that are used for both male and female, and if the sex remains unspecified then you use elle or il according to the grammatical gender used for the generic term. For example:

  • J'ai vu un rhinoceros, il était gros.
  • J'ai vu une girafe, elle était grande.

Sometimes, of course, we need to specify the sex of the animal, then we say, for example, une souris mâle or une souris femelle and use the pronouns accordingly. As we can see in this article where il is used once it has been established that this specific giraffe was a male:

Il est mort de vieillesse au milieu de son troupeau de femelles et de ses derniers petits.

Some animals have different names to designate the male and the female, such as:

  • La chèvre (elle) is the female of le bouc (il).
  • Le cochon (il) is the male and la truie (elle) is the female.

On this page you will find a list with some animal names and the associate grammatical gender.

  • Out of interest on a side note. C'est moi et mes connaissances limitées en ce domaine ou le "petit-de" est toujours systématiquement masculin ? (faon, girafeau, veau, chevreau, marcassin, chaton...)
    – MC68020
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 10:57
  • @aCOSwt y a au moins une chatonne qui me vient à l'esprit... mais elle est femelle (guenon) bien sûr, comme la guenuche... alors que le petit singe mâle reste un petit singe. Mais ça n'est pas tout à fait ce que tu demande, si on reste dans le générique j'ai une première impression qu'on est dans le masculin.
    – None
    Commented Nov 10, 2019 at 11:00

In addition to Laure's excellent answer, note that the agreement stays with the feminine in cases like:

Les souris mâles sont plus agressives que les femelles.

Une panthère mâle est cachée dans la forêt.


Chez les souris, les mâles sont plus agressifs.

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