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And beat it when it sneezes

Posted by R. Berg on May 17, 2003

In Reply to: Why a baby is "it"? posted by TheFallen on May 17, 2003

: : : : Hello!
: : : : Can anybody tell me why in English the pronoun "it" is used with reference to small babies?

: : : I don't know that it is. When parents and others don't know the sex of an unborn child, they may refer to "it." Otherwise it is "he" or "she." There was a commotion when someone referred to Conner Peterson (the unborn child who died when his mother was murdered) as "it."

: : :

: : Sometimes people do call a baby "it" in a general or theoretical discussion when they're not talking about a particular known baby. English doesn't have a singular personal pronoun that applies to someone of either sex. So why would we resort to "it" for a baby when we don't for an older child or an adult? I think maybe because boy and girl babies look alike when dressed.

: I agree with R. Berg - it's something to do with age, I think. One cannot really communicate with a baby or a very young child, so maybe establishing its gender isn't a particularly relevant priority (unless you're the parent, of course!) One is liable to interact with babies and very young children in identical fashion, and as R. Berg points out, boy and girl babies look are indistinguishable when dressed. Consider these examples:-

: I might well say either of the following.

: a) "She brought along her new baby." "Really? What has she decided to call it?"

: b) "She was there with her child." "Really? How old is it now?"

: However, I'd NEVER say any of the following.

: c) "She was there with her cousin." "Really? What was its name?"

: d) "I saw her with her friend" "Really? What did it look like?"

: e) "She was talking to a person we both know" "Really? Remind me what it was called?"

: In c), d) and e) above, I'd probably pick "he" or "she" as the pronoun on assumption, and wait for the other speaker to correct me if I was wrong, or maybe I'd use "he or she" in combination.

: It's just occurred to me that in a) and b) above, I'm far less liable to use "it" in initial reference to a baby or child if I'm talking to its actual parent, presumably because, although the gender of the infant is largely of no matter to me, I'm acknowledging that it is a big deal to its mother and/or father. That's a question more of manners than grammar, though.

I have to disagree with Fallen about one point. It is possible to communicate with a baby. It just isn't possible to do so by e-mail. Babies engage in dialogues with people around them all the time, though not verbal ones.

The standard exclamations "It's a boy!" and "It's a girl!" mark the transition from not knowing whether the expected child is a he or a she to knowing.

I wonder how speakers of other languages refer to a baby when they don't know which sex it is.