I'm writing a short story. The main character is visited by a strange black bird during the night (first draft):

I glanced around but there was no sign of the bird. I didn't spot it in any nearby trees, street poles, or roofs. It had dissolved into the darkness. Just like that.

Had it been a bird, or something else? But if that was the case, what was it? An hallucination? No, it hadn't been product of my imagination. It had been a real bird—with real eyes, real feathers, and a real beak. I went over to check the window. There wasn't a single scratch on it. On the contrary, it looked smooth and spotless as always. Should there be at least a tiny mark? Maybe the bird didn't shove the window as hard as I thought.

I wonder if I should use he instead it to refer to the bird. Would this improve the clarity of the text? Is this a common practice?

Had it been a bird, or something else? But if that was the case, what was he? An hallucination? No, he hadn't been product of my imagination. He'd been a real bird—with real eyes, real feathers, and a real beak. I went over to check the window. There wasn't a single scratch on it. On the contrary, it looked smooth and spotless as always. Should there be at least a tiny mark? Maybe the bird didn't shove the window as hard as I thought.

  • 3
    "Had it been a bird, or something else? But, if that was the case, ..." If what was the case? If it was a bird? If it was something else? If it was a-bird-or-something-else? (Which, by the law of excluded middle, it was; unless, I suppose, it was nothing at all.) By the way, birds colliding with windows often leave very distinctive imprints (gallery); I doubt a bird hitting a window would scratch it (birds are soft; glass is very hard) or crack it (most birds are small and very light). Also, if it was dark, how does the character know the bird was black? – David Richerby Feb 12 '14 at 12:30
  • 1
    I think you don't like "it" for the bird, because you overuse it. (Hehe. Pun.) You use "it" 6x for the bird, then switch to talking about the window (in the same paragraph), using "it" 2x for the window. – dmm Feb 12 '14 at 14:25
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby There are reports on the net of hawks breaking (single pane) windows. – user5645 Feb 15 '14 at 10:12
  • 1
    @what OK. But, now I think about it, most birds (especially hawks, which need to see their prey) are inactive at night because flying in the dark is so dangerous. Owls are the obvious exception and there are probably a few more. – David Richerby Feb 15 '14 at 10:20
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby You are right, and I'm not sure owls would hit windows hard enough to break them. The falcon probably breaks the window because it is diving at a high speed. There are some images of imprints of owls on windows, which would maybe suggest that they fly slow enough not to break the glass. But we do not yet know where the story takes place. Other areas have large birds that break windows more easily: natureofframingham.blogspot.de/2013/08/… But generally I would change "scratch" to "imprint", "stain" or "mark". – user5645 Feb 15 '14 at 11:05

I would only use the gendered pronoun if you know the gender of the animal in question. Lions have manes; lionesses don't. A calico or tortiseshell housecat is 99% guaranteed to be female, while an all-orange tabby housecat is 99% guaranteed to be male. Male robins have the bright red breast while female robins are brown. And so on.

In your piece, the character has no idea if the bird is male or female, or even real, so "it" is appropriate.

  • 4
    We routinely refer to animals as "it". Sometimes, if a person knows the gender, they will refer to an animal as "he" or "she". A beloved pet is usually "he" or "she" to the owner. Someone knowledgeable about this species might use "he" or "she", especially if discussing mating habits, etc. Most other animals are "it". BTW I've never heard the rules LaurenIpsum mentions about cats -- not saying they're wrong, just I'd never heard them before -- so I would have referred to such cats as "it". (And by tomorrow I'll likely have forgotten which was which so I'll be back to "it".) – Jay Feb 12 '14 at 14:12
  • @Jay The cat rules have to do with genetics. Color is carried on the X gene, so 99% of cats with two colors in their coats are females (there are a few XXYs, and Japanese Mi-ke bobtail cats are an exception). The gene for "orange tabby" is on the Y, so those are similarly 99% male. But you'd have to know a little about cat genetics to make those assumptions. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Feb 12 '14 at 16:02
  • 1
    Interestingly, in Russian you always refer to an animal as he/she. However nouns also have genders in Russian so I guess if the gender is unknown you would default to the more common word's gender. This isn't Russian, we use "it" for animals most of the time. Is this dehumanizing? Well they're not humans, they're animals. Is it not giving animals enough respect? Maybe, or maybe it's just an artifact of the language. – Claudiu Feb 12 '14 at 16:28

Actually, I think "it" is correct here because IT could have been a hallucination. Given that this is first person, it (for me at least) defines a 'distance' between the narrator and the object (bird).

If the narrator had an intuitive or "can't explain it yet" strong understanding and sense of the bird, then indicating gender (like using he) would hint this to me as the reader. "Hey, how does the narrator know that the bird was male? The narrator must know something I don't yet."

that's my 2 cents

  • 5
    I agree. The ambiguity of the situation (maybe a real bird, maybe not) calls for "it", as the latter would never be a "he". Even if you know it's a bird, "it" isn't wrong for a bird that you don't know anything about -- as opposed to, say, somebody's pet bird, Polly, whom you know to be a "she". – Monica Cellio Feb 12 '14 at 4:37

You're writing in the first person, so I'd argue that correctness is less important than the way your character sees the world.

Most people, I suspect, would use "it" in this case, but if your character is the sort to identify with or anthropomorphize animals, they might prefer to think of the bird as "he" or "she". If that is the case, you might want to put in a brief moment when the narrator decides to give the bird a gender ("It looked like a he"). Otherwise, as Driss Zouak has pointed out, the reader might wonder if they've missed something.

  • Eli, welcome to Writers, from a fellow musician! – Goodbye Stack Exchange Feb 13 '14 at 6:29
  • A very good point Eli, and an excellent way to sneak in some character building. – CLockeWork Feb 13 '14 at 10:11
  • Thanks Neil and CLockeWork! Yeah, I'm definitely all about the character moments. – Eli McIlveen Feb 15 '14 at 4:00

I agree with Driss and I'd add the following:

I am making the assumption that the bird is an important symbol that represents something about the underlying theme of your story. That symbol or theme should be what determines the gender of the bird in your story, rather than what is typical of native English speakers talking about birds.

For instance, I'd use 'it' if the qualities of the bird were important (like freedom through flight, shrewdness, visiting in the night, eating carrion). On the other hand, if the bird represented an avenging angel, I'd use 'she' (like in The Crow). But if it were symbolic of being haunted by a shadowy and complicated relationship with a former lover, I would use 'he'.

The selection of the pronoun doesn't need to make the connection obvious. You don't need to spell it out, but it gives consistency to your underlying theme, and hints at its existence.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.