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In what situations would you use one of the following instead of the others?

男女 nán nǚ

公母 gōng mǔ

雄雌 xióng cí

Is it a matter of formality or is each term confined to a particular field (e.g. biology)?

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We have another pair called 公母. –  fefe Jan 9 '12 at 14:16
    
Thanks fefe, I have edited the question to include that pair. –  Bjorn Jan 9 '12 at 14:28
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6 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

男女 is used only for humans.

公母 is normally used on animals.

雄雌 is more academic.

公母 is usually used with terms closer to everyday life:

公鸡 / 母鸡 gōngjī / mǔjī for cock / hen

For biological terminology, usually 雄 / 雌 would be used:

雄蕊 / 雌蕊 xióngruǐ / cīruǐ for stamen / carpel


Here are more characters for "male" or "female":

郎猫=公猫

米猫=母猫

儿马=公马

骒马=母马

草驴=母驴

叫驴=公驴

牡=公的

牝=母的

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Just to summarize , 男女 for Humans, 公母 for animals, and to be more scientific 雄雌. –  user3992 Mar 2 at 12:16
    
@user3992 男女 for humans, 公母 for animals, 雄雌 for animals and plants. (Nobody use 雄雌 for humans.) –  Victor Mar 6 at 1:32
    
@Victor 雄雌 can be used for humans especially at ancient times. For example "但闻儿啼,不暇问雌雄。" means "The crying sound of babies can be heard, but the people have no time to find out they are girl or boy" –  songyuanyao Mar 6 at 4:08
    
公母 can also be used for human. In my dialect(northeast), we say 公母俩 to mean "husband and wife". We can also use 公母 on human in humorous ways. For example, if someone mistakes a girl for a guy (maybe the girl has short hair and wears a suit and tie), then we can tease that person saying: 你怎么分不清公母啊? 雄雌 can be used for human for sure. One sentence in 《木兰诗》 goes: 安能辨我是雄雌?The word 英雄 is well-known, but there is also 英雌(means 女英雄) but not used very often. –  孤影萍踪 Mar 6 at 19:06
    
@songyuanyao I wonder why you are always talking about 文言文 (ancient Chinese) rather than 白话文 (modern Chinese) ? Do you think that the poster is asking the archaic language? According to your logic, you should talk about Old English (Anglo-Saxon) in English forum. I believe that the poster is obvious asking the modern Chinese rather than archaic Chinese. –  Victor Mar 7 at 5:49
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雄雌 is used for nature science 男女 is used for human beings. 公母 is used for animals

ram > 公羊 ewes > 母羊

rooster > 公鸡 hen > 母鸡

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When referring to genders:

  • 男 and 女 are used for human beings.
  • 公, 母 are used primarily for animals in written Chinese. The two words may be used for human beings in some spoken Chinese topolects, but I think in Mandarin, this is not a customary use. But of course, the two words can be used for humans in other contexts, e.g. 母親 (mother) and 公公 (maternal grandfather, an old man or in figurative speech, a male human-like character, e.g. 太陽公公).
  • 雌, 雄 may refer to human beings and animals (edit: and plants as well), but they are less frequently used for humans except in classical Chinese or in scientific reports.

However, note that "男女" and "雌雄" are valid compounds (as in 男女不分 or 雌雄莫辨), while "公母" is not (at least not in customary uses). Though, in spoken Cantonese (but not Mandarin), 乸 is used in place of 母 when referring to genders and "公乸" is a legitimate compound word.

Also, the compound word "男女" can be used to mean a group of people that consists of both genders. E.g. 一群男女從旅館走出來 "a group of people (with men and women) walk out the hostel", but "雌雄" and "公乸" have no such (or analogous) uses.

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雄雌 is also used in plants, such as 雄蕊 and 雌蕊. –  Victor Mar 6 at 0:50
    
@Victor Yes, of course, thanks for pointing that out. –  user1551 Mar 6 at 2:26
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男女 is used only for humans.
公母 is only used on animals.
雄雌 is used for anything except humans, including animals, plants, etc.
雄雌 is often used in biology, because it sounds very academic and scientific.

男人 male person (i.e. man)

女人 female person (i.e. woman)

公鸡/雄鸡 male chicken (i.e. cock, rooster)

母鸡(rarely 雌鸡) female chicken (i.e. hen)

雄蕊 male pistil (i.e. stamen)

雌蕊 female pistil (i.e. carpel)

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In addition to the accepted answer, I add some more use cases here, for those that interested in.

When suffix with "性", you can say "男性/女性", "雄性/雌性", but NOT ”公性/母性" for male/female (use the former for human being and the later for other species). "母性” is valid but means “maternity”。If use "雄性/雌性" for human being, you are likely talking about specie Homo sapiens.

You can also use "公/母“ for things that does not alive. If you have a VGA extension cable, you call the head with pins "公的”, the other head (with holes) "母的“。In this case ,neither "男/女" or "雄/雌” can be used.

There are also some tricky things here. Sometimes you want to combine two word together. This can be done as "男女“,”雌雄“(!) and "公母". Be careful that it is not "雄雌" (this is only valid in ancient Chinese texts)!.

For "男女", you can also replicate it to say "男男女女", but not "公公母母” or "雌雌雄雄“

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Usually 男女 is used when we are talking about people. 公母 or 雄雌 is used when we are talking about animals.

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雄雌 is also used in plants. –  Victor Mar 6 at 0:49
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