Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Is using "it" to refer to a person ok? If it is, why?

Q)Who is your teacher?

A)It is Mr. Red.

share|improve this question
Yes, at times. There are contexts where a person (including the first person) may correctly be referred by it. However, your reference to using it for children is strictly 'historical' -- it's considered incorrect today. –  Kris Jun 19 '13 at 6:21
It rubs the lotion on its skin. It does this whenever it is told –  mplungjan Jun 19 '13 at 9:22
@Kris Your comments above & below don't (for me) fully explain why Who is your teacher? It's Mr. Red. is acceptable. (I know it is, but I'm not clear why.) I fully accept that It's .. is acceptable after What is his his name? because the It is referring to the name. But in the first format, Who is your teacher?, the response is effectively My teacher is Mr Red - with it referring to my teacher. So why is that OK? –  TrevorD Jun 19 '13 at 9:51
@Kris Gah, yes, you're absolutely right. –  Branimir Ćaćić Jun 20 '13 at 3:40
@TrevorD when you ask "Who is your teacher?" you are not inquiring about a person, but about the role of a person, which is not the person himself. "It" in the answer refers back to the role "teacher". –  Cyberherbalist Jun 26 '13 at 21:21

2 Answers 2

I can think of two instances in which English speakers frequently (and perhaps normally) refer to a person as it.

Situation 1:

[Person A knocks at person B's door.]

Person B: Who is it?

Person A: It's Vito.

Here, what Person B wants to know is "Who are you?" and what person A is answering is "I'm Vito." But standard practice is to frame Person B, at this stage of the interaction, as it, not you. Perhaps this framework dates back to the days when the question "Who is it?" was directed to the doorman and not to the person doing the knocking (in which case the questioner would not know the sex of the visitor when addressing the doorman), but even then the knocker is initially labeled "it," not "our visitor" or "the person that knocked."

Situation 2:

[Person A sees person B carrying an infant.]

Person A: Oh, how cute! Is it a boy or a girl?

Person B: It's a girl!

Here the speaker's initial recourse to it is perhaps a socially cautious way to avoid misguessing the infant's sex, when that distinction isn't obvious from external appearances.

In both situation 1 and situation 2, the speakers are in no doubt that the person referred to as it is a human being; but for different reasons, it is an entirely acceptable way to style that person at that moment.

share|improve this answer

EDIT Changing the first section because I didn't address the OP's question properly.

The third person singular pronoun; it, should be reserved for genderless objects and animals whose sex we are uncertain of. It is rarely used when talking about men or women in general. However, the pronoun, it, can be employed to insult or mock a person with by implying that his or her sex is unidentifiable.

One of the easiest ways of finding out a person's identity is by asking: "What's your name?" The name of a person is a thing, hence the personal pronoun, it, is used when answering. It is also possible to reply with the possessive adjective followed by the noun: name.


What's your name?

a) It's Mark. Mark Red. (OR My name's Mark. Mark Red.)

What's your teacher's name?

a) It's Mr Mark Red. (OR His name's Mr Mark Red.)

From the interrogative pronoun, what, to who; note we no longer ask about a "name" but about a person's identity.

Who are you?

b) I'm Mark. Mark Red

Who is your teacher?

b) He's Mr Red.

However, asking for people's names is such a common request that in speech it would be perfectly acceptable to reply to the above question absent-mindedly with:

  • It's Mr Red.

The contracted form it's instead of the full form, it is, also makes the sentence sound more natural.

share|improve this answer
Out of pure linguistic curiosity can someone please comment and say if I have missed anything out? Thanks. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 21 '13 at 22:12
I didn't downvote you, but the first part of your answer is wrong. This is because when you ask "What is your name?" you are not inquiring after a person, but after a thing, that is, your name, which is not you. So "it" is appropriate, but appropriate because "it" is not a person, not because it is an exception to the general rule (if rule it is) that persons are not referred to using "it". –  Cyberherbalist Jun 26 '13 at 21:13
@Cyberherbalist Thank you, I've just realized I should have written personal pronoun (and not impersonal) but I do mention "it" in my first sentence. I also say it's common, because you can reply to that question with: My name is so and so. So I am still a bit confused by your observation. Maybe I should put "it" in bold? Would that make it clearer (and change the word, impersonal to personal)? Thanks. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 26 '13 at 21:35
I am not sure how to make this clearer. Try this: A name is not a person. When you ask "What is your name?" you are asking about a thing. Your name is an "it". If I were to ask "What is your name?" and you answered "I am Mari-Lou" you not be answering that question, but the question "Who are you?" The correct answer to "What is your name?" would be "My name is Mari-Lou," or "It is Mari-Lou." Do you understand that you are not your name? –  Cyberherbalist Jun 26 '13 at 21:47
@Cyberherbalist OK. I am stupid. It's official. I'm not really answering the OP's question, am I? Right. This needs editing. –  Mari-Lou A Jun 26 '13 at 21:55

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

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