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I know that switching pronouns when referring to the same subject mid-sentence is considered grammatically incorrect, as in,

It is very easy for one to open a program in our newest operating system, all you have to do is click the corresponding icon.

where the pronoun referring to the subject changes from "one" to "you".

Are there any situations where it is appropriate to switch? For example, should the sentence,

If it is a boy, name him Moses; if it is a girl, name her Zipporah.

be rephrased like this or not?

If it is a boy, name it Moses; if it is a girl, name it Zipporah.

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I think the name for that is "anacoluthon": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anacoluthon – nico Mar 9 '11 at 21:15
One thing about your example: babies can be called "it", but after infancy you usually have to use gender — it will actually be misleading (rather than just less informative) at that point. – Kosmonaut Mar 9 '11 at 21:30
@Kosmonaut, I find babies can safely be called 'it' provided one is out of earshot of the mother (fathers seem less bothered, for some reason). – Brian Hooper Mar 9 '11 at 23:08
Related question of mine: "Is it ever appropriate to mix up 'I' and 'one' in the same sentence?" – Uticensis Mar 30 '11 at 14:17
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Your second example definitely does not need to be rephrased, and in fact the rephrase given should be outlawed on style grounds. Performing it would be a textbook overcorrection and overapplication of the "rule" about switching pronouns.

If you require a justification, try this one: you are not actually switching pronouns at all, because a hypothetical boy-child and a hypothetical girl-child are clearly not the same entity, so you are not referring to the same subject using different pronouns.

That justification is really nonsense, though. The real operating principle is that the pronoun-agreement rule exists to prevent the grammar and style of your prose from being degraded by shifts in the subject you are addressing. Losing the spirit of the thing in an attempt to consistently apply the letter of the rule results in the failure of its original purpose.

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Whether the rephrased sentence should be "outlawed" or preferred really depends on whether it's customary to refer to babies as "it"… which in turn seems a cultural thing. In some places it's considered affectionate, in some offensive. (Well, I know people who even insist on their animals always being referred to as "he" or "she" by others…) – ShreevatsaR Mar 9 '11 at 21:11
It is used when referring to an animal or child of unspecified sex: she was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face. It is also used in phrases like "it's him", "it's me", or "it's a boy!". – kiamlaluno Mar 9 '11 at 22:00
N.B. See the examples in my answer below: I wonder if this answer slightly misses the point that "it" may be non-referential in this case and not really to do with the gneder distinction of babies... – Neil Coffey Mar 10 '11 at 2:10
@kiamlaluno: but the sex of the baby in this question is not unspecified. – Peter Shor Mar 15 '14 at 16:32
@PeterShor My comment was more a comment for the comment before mine. I agree there is no need to use it, in the second example made from the OP. – kiamlaluno Mar 16 '14 at 6:49

Your second example is fine and in fact the third would probably be considered ungrammatical by many speakers.

Remember that "it" doesn't actually have to be referential. In your second example, the "it" of "it's" probably doesn't actually refer to the baby: it's effectivly a dummy pronoun as in "It's important to take action". So there's no contradiction in having "it" and "him/her" in the same sentence: they're not coreferents.


If it's twins, call them Mary and Josephine.

If it's sausages for dinner, make sure you get some mash to go with them.

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