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For example, if you were describing a female dog would you use il or elle? Where I live people describe female dogs using "il" and I'm not sure if that's because they don't care about the dogs gender or because "dog" in French is a masculine noun, and so even a female dog would be referred to as "il".

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    Do the answers to this question answer yours ? What's the correct gender for pets ?
    – None
    May 9 at 9:45
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    The question also concern humans. Till 2000, many professions or roles like "auteur" (author), maire (mayor) or ministre ("minister) were masculine nouns. The usage of "il" or "elle" may vary. Example: La sentinelle s'était endormie. Il(Elle) fut révéillé(e) par le sergent (*The sentinel had fallen asleep. The sergeant woke him up.*) . If the context clearly establish that the sentinel is a man, both "il" and "elle" are acceptable. If the sex is unknown, then it's "elle", because "sentinelle" is feminine.
    – Graffito
    May 9 at 15:01
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    @Graffito For "une sentinelle" (or another more common example: "une personne"), I'd generally be surprised if "il" was used later on, unless there's additional information to clarify the gender (e.g. "La sentinelle s'était endormie. C'etait un jeune cadet. Il [...]"). I also don't think it's ever shocking to hear something about "une personne" that carries on with "*elle a ensuite fait ceci/cela", even if this person is male. That's also quite different from the feminisation of some professions and titles (generally meant to break the assumption that the person is male).
    – Bruno
    May 9 at 16:01
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    @bruno : we are at one on all points, i.e. "if the context clearly establish that the sentinel is a man" == "unless there's additional information to clarify the gender". On the other case,(unknown gender), I wrote that It's "elle", because "sentinelle" is feminine.
    – Graffito
    May 9 at 16:40

3 Answers 3

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It's not correct to use "il". If the name is femimine the pronoun has to be "elle".

  • La chienne a mal à la patte, elle boite de plus en plus et elle gémit.

In French it is not very natural to say "un chien femelle". Here is for example what can be gathered from Histoire lexicographique ou Diction,naire Français Flamand from 1846 (Jacob F.J. Heremans, ‎Philippe Olinger).

                  enter image description here

However, if this page of Google examples shows many false positives, there are cases of use of "chien femelle".

Example

(La Chine: Journal de Pékin (1963-2008)) un chien femelle et un chien mâle, la femelle que l'on voit au bout du dessin remarque que le mâle est adorable, qu'elle est amoureuse de lui, et le chien mâle dit : « Elle est pas mal celle-là, mais elle n'a pas l'air très intelligente ...

Corresponding to this use you can use "il" because the term is masculine ("chien" is head word) and if the discussion is not concerned with the female characteristics of the animal, but you can also assume right away that it is a female, a bitch, and use "elle".

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    +1, you can also use "il" when you don't know or care about the dog's gender. May 9 at 8:19
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    I would add this is true for pets, but for example we don't do this for "une girafe", "un hippopotame", "une chouette", ... May 9 at 8:59
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    Is it acceptable in all places to use "chienne" to talk of your female pet, even though it can mean bitch?
    – jari85
    May 9 at 9:23
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    @aamart01 definitely acceptable and correct.
    – None
    May 9 at 9:55
  • @aamart01 in Québec we have a couple expressions, "avoir la chienne", or "c'est chien", (there may even be the more historical "fils de chienne") which are all pejorative, but not nearly as bad as the English "bitch". If, on the other hand, you say "c'est ma chienne" for "that's my dog", no negative connotation is involved. May 9 at 21:24
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LPH answer is very detailed and accurate.

From experience, we tend to use il/elle depending on the animal gender. If one does not have this information, we tend to use il/elle based on the species gender.

I hope it makes sense.

EDIT: This is true for pet, as mentioned by @Flying_whale.

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    Could you give an example to clarify? For example, for a giraffe (une girafe), if you know the particular giraffe is a boy, then would you use "il" to refer to it in conversation, despite it being "une girafe" grammatically? I heard at least one French speaker say that for example, for "une chèvre" that he would naturally use elle to refer to that animal, even if it happens to be a male chèvre.
    – Brandin
    May 9 at 9:15
  • Technically, a male chèvre is a bouc ... But I understand what you are trying to say. In the case of a giraffe, I have to say that I would go for une girafe all the time but I never meet this. Therefore, my comment may be misleading. This has to work with common animals .. or pets. EDIT: I have just seen Flying_whale's comment above and she is right. My remark is true for pets.
    – KrKAlex
    May 9 at 9:20
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    I have never heard/read le vieux girafe for example. However, la vieille chienne and le vieux chat are definitely common use. Once again, now that I made up my mind, we use the animal's gender for pets and species gender for all other animals. I do not have enough reputation to reply to your comment on LPH's answer, but yes, you can use chienne even though it means "bitch" and same for chatte while it means "pussy". In practice, I tend to add the surname of the dog after to avoid confusion.
    – KrKAlex
    May 9 at 9:25
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    I would use il. An example: "La girafe mâle rejoint son lieu de prédilection pour y retrouver ses petits. Il apporte le soutien nécessaire à la girafe pour accompagner les premiers pas effectués par les girafons" Sorry, I am not so inspired.
    – KrKAlex
    May 9 at 9:49
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    In addition to all this, a number of native French speakers often have to be corrected regarding similar species that are gendered differently: la grenouille n'est pas la femelle du crapaud et la chouette n'est pas la femelle du hibou.
    – Bruno
    May 9 at 16:13
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We use the gender of the noun used to name the animal if its gender is unknown or irrelevant. This noun gender is often masculine but can be feminine too.

  • Un chien, il
  • Un cheval, il
  • Une souris, elle
  • Une belette, elle

If the animal gender is known/relevant and a form matching it exists, it will be used:

  • Une chienne, elle
  • Une jument, elle

If the noun only has a single gender, we will use it and specify the actual gender if needed:

  • Une souris mâle, elle
  • Une araignée femelle, elle
  • Une girafe mâle (then the pronoun used would often be elle unless we formally switch to the masculine by saying le mâle)
  • Une belette mâle, elle
  • Un crabe femelle, il (or une femelle crabe, elle)

Sometimes, even if the feminine noun exists, the masculine might also be used:

  • Un éléphant femelle, il or elle = une éléphante, elle

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