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I often come across the use of "she" not as an gender neutral pronoun as such but as the pronoun of choice when the gender is unknown. This is particularly common in scientific/technical documents but not exclusive to them. The following are four of the first google hits when searching for "the user can" "if she":

  • Example 1:

    The user can type anything to identify the file. When coming back to the data she would expect to see exactly the same string she typed in.

  • Example 2:

    In this page the user can add a new entity, if she follows the link labelled Add entity.

  • Example 3:

    To continue with our ergonomic program, imagine that you would really like the user to sit down and your program would continue only once she answers that she is sitting down, you can use the do…while statement to wait for the user to sit down;

  • Example 4:

    The user can program the alarm to go off at a particular time -- for example, the user can enter the time when she expects to get home.

I do not call this gender-neutral because she clearly has a gender. However, that is in no way implied by the context. Traditionally, we would have used he instead but the use of she in these contexts has been rising (at least that is my impression).

I raised this point in the comments section of this question and was told that such use of she is ungrammatical. I was also told that it is annoying which is the reader's prerogative, but ungrammatical?

So, is such use of she ungrammatical and, if so, why?


CLARIFICATION: I am not asking what the gender-neutral pronoun is in the English language but why she would be ungrammatical if he isn't.

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@Ben it is not a duplicate. I am not asking whether she is or can be gender-neutral. I am asking why using it in a context where the gender is unknown would be ungrammatical. –  terdon Mar 25 '13 at 19:45
    
...yeah? I'm pretty sure that question is exactly the same, except it is asked from the other side (is "he" grammatical for unknown gender). As far as I can tell, this question is answered there. –  Ben Mar 25 '13 at 19:48
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@Ben not as far as I can tell, no. That question is asking whether one can use he as a gender neutral pronoun. Mine is about the use of she. I am not asking what I should use as a gender neutral pronoun, personally I tend to use they or perform grammatical calisthenics to avoid using one at all. In the examples above, the authors have simply used a fictitious female user where traditionally we would have used a male one. It is, of course, ungrammatical to use she to describe males but I see no reason why it would be wrong to chose a female example user rather than a male. –  terdon Mar 25 '13 at 20:00
    
I'll concede that it's not necessarily a duplicate of that question, but it's definitely answered there. Those answers explain how the use of "he" is becoming outdated, and how you should avoid using gender-specific pronouns in situations with unspecified gender, which is the same as the responses here. –  Ben Mar 25 '13 at 20:11
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For some reason, it's a convention of technical writing to refer the user as female, particularly in documentation not intended for an end user. (Although some technical writing style guides prefer gender-neutral pronouns: they, them, or their.) –  Hugo Mar 25 '13 at 22:02
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marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Mar 25 '13 at 21:39

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3 Answers

It's a complicated subject. He was used in the past as the gender-neutral pronoun, but the shift away from the masculine-as-neutral more about societal mores and wanting to be inclusive then it is about affirmative action.

Here is an interesting article from Oxford about the subject. Essentially, they provide three alternatives.

  • Use he or she
  • Use they
  • Pluralize the noun instead of using a pronoun

They provide the pros and cons of each approach as well, but the essential conclusion is that it's not really decided yet. She as gender-neutral is definitely ungrammatical, as it has neither inclusiveness nor history on its side. Using he - while remaining noninclusive - at least has the advantage of tradition.

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Thanks, but I know that she is not gender neutral. I just don't see why it is ungrammatical in contexts where the gender is unknown. In the examples above, the authors have simply used a fictitious female user where traditionally we would have used a male one. It is, of course, ungrammatical to use she to describe males but I see no reason why it would be wrong to chose a female example user rather than a male. –  terdon Mar 25 '13 at 19:48
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@terdon The problem with using she for an indefinite antecedent is that it is assigning a definite gender, and it should not be doing that. Using definite genders for indefinite antecedents is the grammatical clash. It has no history, and is very weird to read or hear. “Any mother would do the same for her own child” is one thing, but “Ask anyone who shows up to leave her purse at the door” is making all kinds of nasty and inappropriate assumptions. It is not acceptable. –  tchrist Mar 25 '13 at 20:02
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@terdon It's not grammatically wrong by the rules of English. It's grammatically wrong because using a specific gender is viewed as "outdated and sexist" now (quoted from linked article). The only reason "he" can be considered correct in terms of grammar is because so many people still use it without knowing that there is a push to move away from a gender-specific pronoun in the case of unknown gender. –  Ben Mar 25 '13 at 20:03
    
@tchrist, no more "nasty or inappropriate" than "Ask anyone who shows up to leave his bowler". Also, "Ask anyone who comes to leave her stuff" as opposed to_purse_ would be even less jarring. While I don't share your belief that assuming gender (be it male or female) can be inappropriate or unacceptable, I see your point about usage. I still see no reason why it would be considered ungrammatical. –  terdon Mar 25 '13 at 20:14
    
@Ben, I think you've put your finger on it. It is not grammatically wrong as such, it is just that the use of she implies a gender while he can be taken as neutral. Makes sense. –  terdon Mar 25 '13 at 20:15
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I would disagree with the comment in your other question and say that it is not "ungrammatical". As the various answers in this question, and others, attest: 'she' is both accepted and even (in some cases) popular as a gender-neutral pronoun.

It may be considered unusual, weird, trendy, or distracting by some (myself included) but I can't find any reason to suggest it is incorrect.

Edit to add: (having just seen tchrist's comment in the other answer) Using a gender-neutral pronoun at all only makes sense when you're talking about a gender-neutral concept in the first place. "The user can use her mouse" is reasonably gender neutral. "Ask anyone who shows up to leave her purse..." would be weird unless it's a girls-only party.

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That's pretty much my take on it as well. –  terdon Mar 25 '13 at 20:09
    
So would you consider both he and she as gender-neutral pronouns to be grammatical, and the choice is up to the author? Are they interchangable? –  Marcus_33 Mar 25 '13 at 20:12
    
@terdon if you've already made up your mind, why ask the question? –  Marcus_33 Mar 25 '13 at 20:12
    
@Marcus_33 - From a grammatical standpoint, yes. "Ask the student to raise his or her hand..." doesn't make sense in an all-girls or all-boys school, but that doesn't make it ungrammatical. –  Lynn Mar 25 '13 at 20:18
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@Lynn - In that case, the gender would not be unknown. As the question asks, if it is unknown, then using a gender-specific pronoun is not correct. –  Ben Mar 25 '13 at 20:21
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It's technically not gender neutral, because, as you state, "she" is not gender neutral. But then again, "he" isn't gender neutral either (but is in much more common usage to refer to either a male or a female). I am not aware that either is grammatically incorrect, per se.

In some disciplines, particularly in computer science and engineering, using "she" in writing is a way to try to encourage diversity and to go against the stereotypical "male" commonly in such settings.

Usually in these situations, the gender of the subject is irrelevant and therefore either male or female pronouns can be used safely.

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One possibility is using "he" and "she" in alternate paragraphs. –  GEdgar Mar 25 '13 at 21:10
    
Yes, that is quite common. –  Irwin Mar 25 '13 at 21:25
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@GEdgar That is terrible, and ridiculous to boot. –  tchrist Mar 25 '13 at 21:49
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