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What is the difference between 他, 她, and 它?

I want to know when you use one and when not to. It seems pretty basic language because I hear 他, 她, and 它 everywhere in Chinese language.

Anything else would be appreciated.

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Disclaimer: I am a native speaker, but I am neither a professional linguist, nor have I received any sufficient grammar training beyond high school Chinese, so please take a grain of salt.

“他” would be “he” in English, “她” would be “she” and “它” would be “it". We use it exactly like that in English.

a mnemonic device: the left component of "她” is “女字旁”, which is an indication that the word is related to female.

  • I don't think you need to be a linguist to answer questions here. If you know the answer and are willing to share, that should be good enough. – monalisa Feb 16 '15 at 3:14
  • @monalisa lol, you are probably right on this particular case, but sometimes the questions could get very tricky. I do have experienced situation where I gave a wrong explanation. – jxhyc Feb 16 '15 at 3:21
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    (unlike English)它 applies to any animal whether male or female, to show respect and love 她 can apply to mother land,party, flag etc。 (iciba: 对祖国、党、旗等称呼“她”, 表示敬爱) – user6065 Feb 16 '15 at 3:25
  • @S.Rhee that's not unlike English at all, where sometimes countries or ships are referred to with gendered pronouns. This usage is going out of style though: english.stackexchange.com/questions/12632/… – congusbongus Feb 16 '15 at 6:12
  • Of course in English sometimes countries or ships are referred to with gendered pronouns,above comment meant to say that in Chinese unlike English 它 is used for oxen,cows,stags,hens,roosters,female toads,male beetles etc。, whereas English is free to use he/she ,see comment below。 – user6065 Feb 16 '15 at 8:02
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她 is "she",female only. While 他 refers to both male and female. But sometimes 他 may only stand for male. In English,when you're not sure one's gender,you have to say "He or she is....".But in Chinese you can simply use 他 to include both male and female. Please note,unlike "it" in English,它 is only used to indicate non-living objects.

  • that's true! 牠 as well... though does anyone even bother with that last one? Never see it... – Master Sparkles Feb 16 '15 at 3:31
  • He or she in English is they. – Gao Feb 16 '15 at 4:36
  • Really?But I've never seen that usage before. – Libécht Wang Feb 16 '15 at 8:48
  • Regarding "它 is only used to indicate non-living objects", just look up Chinese version of any Wikipedia article for an animal e。g。 elephant,when referring to elephants it always uses 它们(10 times),twice 它 for a single individual – user6065 Feb 17 '15 at 4:58
  • That confuses me.... Cuz everyone I've talked to always uses "牠"or"她/他" when referring to animals,otherwise what's "牠" for? – Libécht Wang Feb 18 '15 at 3:09
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What is the difference between 他, 它, and 她?

In short, you can exchange 它 and 她 to 他, but not always right inversely. Basically, 他 is inclusive. In the stories for children, 他 is used for animals. In most cases, if you do not have to use 她, always use 他 instead.

For example, 我们今天要选一个组长,他必须有五年的工作经验.

You must not write, 我们今天要选一个组长,她必须有五年的工作经验. Since 她 is exclusive.

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Trying to use linguistic slangs: 他 is the masculine gender third person, i.e "he/him"; 她 is the feminine gender third person i.e "she/her"; it for non-human third person, i.e "it" In Traditional Chinese, there is also 妳 for feminine gender second person, Simplified Chinese doesn't normally distinguish the gender for second-person.

Also in Chinese, do not use 它("it") for babies.

You can use 她/他 for animals, pets. Nations, lands, ships are often referred to in feminine gender when speaking figuratively.

Normally, the masculine gender are used for default, unknown and mixed genders like it is used to be in English in which it is common to use "she or he" to refer to unknown gender. In Chinese the form of 他或她 (he or she) are not very common but acceptable if the speaker what to stress gender equity.

When personification, 她、他 can be used for objects that are not human.

  • are there internet examples with female dogs, cats, horses, etc, referred as 她, some users (like this one) have only seen 它 when referring to animals known to be female. – user6065 Feb 16 '15 at 4:54
  • @S.Rhee as I said this is only when used in personification. An internet examples would be baike.baidu.com/subview/629576/10574039.htm 艾咪·罗斯(Amy Rose)艾咪一只粉色的刺猬、索尼克的女朋友,性格热情、泼辣,初登场于索尼克 CD。当艾咪初次遇见索尼克时便对他一见钟情,但索尼克对这个充满热情的女朋友又惊又怕,时常躲着她. Basically this is the introduction of Sonic's girl friend. Also you can call your pet he or she which I believe to be common in English as well. – user1228520 Feb 16 '15 at 5:40
  • Needless to say in English it is common practice to refer to animals of any order (including e。g。insects)as he/she once gender has been established。 Reply seems to confirm that when talking about e。g。公牛、母牛,雄乌鸦,母鸡,雄黄蜂,雌癞蛤蟆 Chinese unlike English would usually not use 他/她 but only 它。 – user6065 Feb 16 '15 at 7:47
  • @S.Rhee Yes, they should not simply be applied to 公牛、母牛 etc. 她 and 他 should only be used on animals when the speaker tries to personify the object which is common in narratives in stories where all characters are based on animals, but again this is not mandatory, or the animal is of personal significance to the speaker so that the speaker would treat it as a human, i.e. refer to beloved pet. – user1228520 Feb 17 '15 at 5:05

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