Let me repeat here a quote from this question:

Für diese richtige Antwort auf die Frage gönnt Ihnen Ihr Lehrer ein kurzes Nicken. Sie nehmen die Auszeichnung bescheiden entgegen und die nächste Aufgabe in Angriff. Nicht schlecht für den Anfang.

There, I commented –apparently erroneously– that Lehrer couldn't be a female. I do agree that in many sort of texts, say in a contract (der Lehrer soll blah blah), you could find Lehrer, which as noun is always masculine, as standing for teachers of both genera. Also the reference given to me in the comments points out at a different kind of noun: an adjectivized noun which moreover has jeder before it.

In the previous quote, it is another case, though. First, it is singular, and secondly the text appears to exhibit a narrative character, so if the teacher would be female, the author would likely denoted it as such. So, I know I'm most likely wrong in my comment "The teacher is not a woman", but I'd like to know why.

  • Can somebody explain to me why Lehrer could stand for a female teacher?

Edit. If somebody is still curious about what the author of that book intended by Lehrer the word has been replaced in another edition by Dozent.

  • 1
    Would this Q/A suffice? german.stackexchange.com/questions/18744/…
    – Stephie
    May 31, 2015 at 22:18
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    The quote could mean "ihr Lehrer" = that guy with the beard and the tie or "ihr Lehrer" = the person of unknown sex doing the teaching. From the general tone (present tense, describing a scenario) I would tend to read it as the latter but couldn't say for sure.
    – Stephie
    May 31, 2015 at 22:25

6 Answers 6


I am describing what is undoubtedly the traditional viewpoint, although I fear controversy may arise.

You were right to assume a male teacher and I fully agree with your reasoning: the text appears to exhibit a narrative character, so if the teacher would be female, the author would likely denoted it as such.

Sometimes the male form can include females. Imagine a legal text saying something like:

Der Lehrer ist für die Sicherheit des Schülers verantwortlich.

This generalized teacher and his student are refered to as males for convenience.

EDIT: I mean a convenience intended by the grammar and not a sloppy error for convenience.

Note the example in the link from @Stephie ´s comments: male or female grammatical gender

Ich gehe zum Bäcker.

I may say this even if I know she is a woman, simply ignoring this point. There, for the purpose of my discussion the baker is unimportant enough to be assigned a "neutral gender". The former is almost always male.

Such tendency for using the male gender is also apparent in the plural. One will traditionally say:

10 Bauarbeiter

referring to 9 women and one man. Such points often infuriate feminists.

However, one may not use "neutral gender" to describe a female teacher who is fleshed out in a description like the one your comment concerned. Unfortunately, I can not search inside the book. Is this the only mention of the teacher? Otherwise the example describes his mannerisms vividly enough to make the usage of the correct gender mandatory. Then, if the sentence was written about a woman I would strongly suspect the author was foreign.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Takkat
    Jun 5, 2015 at 6:24

This quote can be read in one of two possible ways:

  • Using a generic masculine to denote an unknown, unspecified person whose profession is teaching students and whose sex is not known;

  • Referring to a specific teacher in a specific situation, where the specific teacher would have to be male.

I believe that the first is the case. The text includes references to the students in Sie-form:

Für diese richtige Antwort auf die Frage gönnt Ihnen Ihr Lehrer ein kurzes Nicken.

There is no ambiguity here: Somebody is being addressed directly. But there are no quotation marks or anything that would signify quoted direct speech, and indirect speech would change the pronoun. So I understand this as the book talking to the reader in some way or another. I can only really imagine this happening in the context of a learners’ book of some sort. But a learners’ book has no way of knowing whether the students’ teacher is male or female. As such, it would choose a generic form (usually and traditionally masculine), explicitly state both, or use one of the politically correct abbreviations like ‘Binnen-I’.

I could, of course, be wrong because I have no access to the original book. It could well be a novel and the original quote just forgot to include quotation marks. If that is the case, there is less reason to believe the teacher to be female — although the use of a generic masculine is still permitable in some cases. If I go to the hairdresser’s, I will say

Ich gehe zum Friseur.

although my hairdresser is female. This could be the case for the teacher, too; however, I feel that the teacher might just be introduced a tad too much for a generic form to be allowed.

  • 1
    You beat me by 2 minutes with basically the same answer.
    – Crissov
    Jun 2, 2015 at 14:53
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    "Zum Friseur" is interesting. I think it is often used to denote a location, like "Zum Gemüseladen", "Zur Baustelle". It's used for the place where you get your hair cut, not the person doing it.
    – gnasher729
    Jun 4, 2015 at 20:16
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    @gnasher729 True, the person is very much used like a location. However, considering the following dialogue there is still too much of a person in the location: »Ich geh zum Arzt« »Was willstn da?« »Ihn was fragen.«
    – Jan
    Jun 5, 2015 at 21:15

I thought about my answer and the comment and came to the conclusion that it doesn't quite answers the question, so let's give it a new try.

First of all, "generics" are common and appear with all grammatical genders: "die Katze" for all cats, "das Eichhörnchen" for all squirrels, "der Lehrer" for all teachers, regardless of gender. When using diminuitives, every term becomes a neuter gender, hence the strange term "Mädchen" refering to female children only.
So if you speak about a group of teachers, male and female, you can use "die Lehrer" - if you follow the logic of the language. But in this case, "Lehrer" is not really one of the women; you speak about the general group of persons. You'll use that when you make general statements and do not care about gender or do not know the gender:

Alle Katzen sind süß. (gender is not important).
Gestern habe ich eine süße Katze gesehen. (I don't know it's gender or it is not important)
Da vorne kommt ein Lehrer aus dem Lehrerzimmer. (valid if I can't recognize his or her gender or if I don't care)
Wir müssten noch einen Lehrer einstellen. (could be a woman as well)
Ich wünsche mir eine Katze (cat or tomcat).

To cut a long story short: "Lehrer" can be a woman when "Lehrer" is used as a generic, which is appropriate when you don't know the gender or when you use "Lehrer" in a context where gender is not important. You cannot, however, use "Lehrer" when talking about a specific female teacher.

These are the "classic" grammatical rules; some people will digress, as they claim that the generic use of "Lehrer" discriminates against woman. It's up to you whether you follow that conclusion or not. However, they're not so keen to use "Täterinnen oder Täter" when it comes to crimes where the offender is still unknown...

  • So for teacher, once you claim it depends on the question whether the sex is important, later whether it is known. For animals, the known sex is not relevant if it is not important. Jun 1, 2015 at 22:58

Ja, Bei Verwendung von Lehrer kann auch eine Frau gemeint sein.

Begriffe für Personen und Lebewesen können im Deutschen im weiteren und im engeren Sinne benannt werden:

Ist das Geschlecht bekannt oder wird Wert darauf gelegt, benennt man das auch: "Unsere Lehrerin ist Frau Müller." oder "Der Kater ist sehr verschmust."

Für die neutrale Obermenge ohne Beachtung/Wissen des Geschlechts wird bei Menschen traditionell die männliche Form verwendet: "Wer ist hier Lehrer in dieser Klasse?" Bei Tieren gibt es pro Art eine festgelegte Form: "Dort läuft eine Katze/ein Hund!"

Überwiegend als unnötig übertrieben und bürokratisch wird dagegen im einfachen Volk der Versuch empfunden, Varianten wie "LehrerInnen" einzuführen, um Gleichberechtigung zu verdeutlichen.

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    Es ist nicht immer die maennliche Form. Wenn es um traditionell mehr weibliche Berufe mit weiblichen Bezeichnungen geht, kann auch die weibliche Form als Oberbegriff verwendet werden. Beispielsweise: Stewardess oder Krankenschwester. Meist hat man da heute aber neue Kunstworte geschaffen, um die maennlich-als-Oberbegriff Regel wiederherzustellen: Flugbegleiter und Krankenpfleger. Jun 10, 2015 at 16:26

In this specific case, the phrase of interest is not just Lehrer but Ihr Lehrer! The text is directed at the anonymous reader – hence capital ‹I› in Ihr – and the author couldn’t know beforehand the gender of the reader’s teacher. Therefore it is safe to assume that the masculine was used in a generic sense here. Whether it is read as such is a different question that has been asked before, but has no simple answer (although people of both camps would like to make you believe otherwise).


"Lehrer" is used for both male and female teachers, when we are talking about an abstract teacher. For example if we discuss the rights of an abstract teacher, it doesn't matter whether the teacher is male or female. "Heute diskutieren wir die Rechte und Pflichten des Lehrers" - perfectly fine for male or female.

As soon as we talk about one particular teacher, that teacher is male or female, and is a "Lehrer" or a "Lehrerin". "Dort kommt mein Lehrer" is wrong and wouldn't be used if that teacher is female, only for a male teacher.

Now we look at a sentence from a book. "... gönnt Ihnen Ihr Lehrer ein kurzes Nicken... ". It's a book. It cannot know whether your teacher is male or female. However, what if the book had talked about a sibling? In German, a sibling is either "Bruder" or "Schwester". There is no abstract sibling, unlike in English (but there are abstract siblings, "Geschwister"). The author of the book would have had to make a decision, for example "... gönnt Ihnen Ihre Schwester ein kurzes Nicken..."

In this sentence, I would say the book talks about a concrete, but unknown, teacher, using the male form, therefore in this case "Lehrer" means "male teacher".

PS. I believe "Lehrer" or "Dozent" makes no difference in this situation. "Doktor" or "Professor" may work different when used as a title.

  • 1
    The word Geschwister exists in singular. Much like the little known Elter. (Yes, they are usually used as technical terms but that doesn’t limit them there.)
    – Jan
    Jun 2, 2015 at 17:07

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