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Is there a pronoun I can use as a gender-neutral pronoun?

Each student should save his questions until the end.
Each student should save her questions until the end.

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You're so lucky - imagine, in German there is a female form for every profession and such (something like actor and actress), and we fight on the proper gender to use. Let's take General (obvious translation, this is why I use it) and its female form Generalin. We now have to write GeneralIn with capital I or General/in to mean both. –  malach Oct 15 '10 at 8:26
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Pedant alert: Am I right in thinking that the gender neutral pronoun would be "it". What the questioner is after is a pronoun for "indeterminate gender" –  Seamus Oct 15 '10 at 10:53
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No love for zir? –  TRiG Oct 15 '10 at 18:05
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@TRiG - No love for zir. I've never actually seen that word in the wild (and would probably think the person just threw in a german word for no good reason). –  T.E.D. Jun 7 '11 at 13:59
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@Seamus No you are not right in thinking the gender-neutral pronoun is it. In fact, you are wrong. An it cannot be a human agency. It doesn’t mean someone whose sex you don’t know or don’t care to disclose. You need to use they for that. Been that way for at least 700 years now. –  tchrist Jan 20 '12 at 18:52
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17 Answers 17

up vote 162 down vote accepted

Singular they enjoys a long history of usage in English and can be used here: "Each student should save their questions until the end."

However, “singular they” also enjoys a long history of criticism. If you are anxious about being criticized (for what is in fact a perfectly grammatical construction) I would advise rewording to avoid having to use a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun.

Some rewording strategies that can be employed:

  • Use a plural noun: Students should save their questions until the end.
  • Use the formal one: One should save one's questions until the end.
  • Use his or her: Each student should save his or her questions until the end
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A potential re-word on this sentence would be "Students should save their questions until the end." "Each" and "every" are just asking for trouble. –  J.T. Grimes Aug 5 '10 at 21:08
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Each and every are lovely words, and the only way to get people to understand them properly is to keep them in use! Perhaps we should teach logic to everyone from a young age - then there'll be no trouble. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 10 '10 at 20:53
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I'm a big supporter of singular they. We managed to get singular you to replace thou - and even the once-controversial "yourself" is accepted as correct English. I still find "themself" hard to accept as correct, but I think it's the only sensible solution. "Zie" just looks like taking political-correctness to the ludicrous level, with the rare exception of when you are dealing with a known person of a determinate gender that is neither male nor female. –  Richard Gadsden Sep 16 '10 at 12:03
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@Richard: Not sure about other countries, but here in Ireland singular they is very common. For the most part, instead of "themself" we tend to use "themselves". As in, instead of "He/she should think for himself/herself", it would be "They should think for themselves". –  Joe D Sep 22 '10 at 18:38
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I long ago learned to stop worrying and love the singular they. –  T.E.D. Jun 7 '11 at 13:46
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And to round out the answers here, one is a very proper way to encompass both male and female antecedents.

To boldly go where no one has gone before

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This is correct, but has practically fallen into disuse because it suggests an embarrassingly high level of education. Shouldn't be embarrassing, but the UK has a lot of inverse snobbery, which makes people reluctant to use this form; so we tend to use "they/their" instead ("his or her" just feels too clumsy). –  njd Aug 6 '10 at 15:20
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I personally often interchange between using "one/one's" and "they/their/their's". New Zealand too has both snobbery and inverse snobbery, but it isn't so bad... And people get used to it when you've been talking to them for a while. In writing, though, I often write "(s)he" or "s/he", originally getting the idea from a friend in Spanish class. He used to write "s/h/it" for "he/she/it", but I can't bring myself to ever write that in a non meta context. –  Vincent McNabb Aug 7 '10 at 2:11
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Hi @Lord Torgamus: Yes, here in the US we have recently come to refer to inverse snobbery as being "Palinesque", for what it's worth. :-) –  MikeSchinkel Sep 12 '10 at 0:35
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@Vincent I'm not sure people would like to be referred to as "s/h/it" given what it looks like with the slashes removed. I suppose that may have been your point. –  ErikE Sep 26 '10 at 5:59
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The problem with the pronoun "one" is that when one uses "one" one finds oneself forced to use "one" and all one's variations throughout the rest of one's sentence that one is trying to say. –  Jay Jan 20 '12 at 18:54
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It is common to write, "Each student should save his or her questions until the end" or to vary his and her throughout your text. In speech you will often hear native speakers say, "Each student should save their questions until the end."

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For what it's worth, in academic writing I exclusively use the singular third person masculine "he", recognized by many as gender-neutral. Many other languages do this without concern: German and Spanish come to mind.

In everyday speech I will unconsciously use singular "they". In my book, this has unquestionably drifted into very common use in all but the most formal situations.

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Hi @itrekkie: "In your book?" Went to your profile but didn't see any reference... –  MikeSchinkel Sep 12 '10 at 0:37
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@MikeSchinkel You sure had me confused! I didn't see any links in my post! "In my book" is an expression meaning something like, "in my opinion" or "in my experience"; here a bit of both. –  Charlie Sep 13 '10 at 1:06
    
Of course Spanish has the benefit of not requiring a pronoun at all. –  Josh Leitzel Sep 17 '10 at 1:50
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In Spanish it is becoming increasingly politically incorrect to use "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun. It is also wrong that Spanish does not require a pronoun at all; it does in some cases, and not in some others. The issue of sexist language, and he/she pronoun usage is currently a big controversial topic in Spanish-speaking communities. –  CesarGon Jan 3 '11 at 2:00
    
@CesarGon: also have this problem in French speaking communities (specifically in Québec). Many (government/school) texts start with a disclaimer stating something like "Use of the masculine form is only intended to lighten the text and encompasses both genders." –  André Caron Sep 9 '11 at 18:11
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I remember reading somewhere that it was recommended to use the opposite of what most people stereotype the profession as. So, for example, when talking about a chiropractor, you would use "her", and when talking about a secretary, you would use "his".

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That sounds rather backwards! ;) –  Arlen Beiler Feb 4 '11 at 15:55
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@arlen Wasn't it backward-ness that recommended it as a solution? (I.e., I took that as the intention.) –  jbelacqua Mar 16 '11 at 0:01
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I like this one, it's sort of open-minded. In the world of software developers, you would then write her and she ;) And that's quite elegant, because, although women are a minority in this field, they exist, and they shouldn't be ignored. –  olivierg May 10 '11 at 21:57
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@sq33G - the 2nd definition of "Man" is "A human regardless of sex or age; a person." –  Jeffrey Kemp Aug 14 '13 at 8:11
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Actually, the prof himself commented that at some point in his career people started referring to the human machine interface. –  sq33G Aug 14 '13 at 8:37
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The "singular they" sounds totally wrong to my ear. But I am conscious of the implicit gender bias our language can have at times. So, I prefer to choose "his" or "her" either at random, or with a bias against the stereotype: use "his" when most people would assume you're talking about a woman; use "her" when most would assume a man.

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I agree with your first sentence. –  nyuszika7h Feb 5 '11 at 13:24
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Randomly switching between his and her or applying his to traditional female roles and vice versa is too much hard work for me (and distracting to read). Anyway, who determines what gender a role is traditionally? Is a medical doctor a him or a her? I will stick with them and their. –  Alex Feb 10 '11 at 3:45
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@Alex: Your post gets me thinking: If someone does deliberately use the "opposite" pronoun, doesn't that imply that they have a clearly fixed idea of what gender is "normal" for this role, and thus mark them as sexist? Or to put it another way, they are attempting to overcome sexual stereotypes by constantly bringing up and reinforcing sexual stereotypes. :-) –  Jay Jan 20 '12 at 19:44
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@Jay: Being conscious of gender stereotypes is not reinforcing them, it is calling attention to them. –  Ron Maimon Mar 6 '12 at 5:45
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With use, singular they gets to sound a lot less jarring. And it usually avoids confusion, being considered sexist, and sounding lastingly awkward (he or she...). –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 at 18:40
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Her is not recommended or standard. His is standard, though the recommended way would be to change "Each student should.." to "The students should...".

"Students should..." is more abstract, and refers to students in general, rather than a specific group of students.

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I'd say singular they is becoming recognised as standard. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 13 at 18:42
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It's not my area of expertise, I'm not using it, and just learned about its existence today, so just for reference from Wikipedia's Spivak pronoun:

The Spivak pronouns are a proposed set of gender-neutral pronouns in English devised by Michael Spivak. They are not in widespread use, but have been employed in gender-neutral language by some people who dislike the more common alternatives "he/she" or singular they.

The (new) Spivak pronouns are formed from the pronoun "they" by dropping the "th".

There are two variants of the Spivak pronouns in use, as shown in the declension table below.

Spivak

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I hope that never catches on! –  Alex Feb 10 '11 at 3:39
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+1 for Spivak pronouns. While I disagree with the political overtones, I do like the idea of a third-person,singular gender-neutral pronoun. –  Andrew Neely Aug 17 '11 at 11:37
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More generally, Wikipedia outlines of whole series of these "solutions": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun#Invented_pronouns –  Tao Dec 29 '11 at 10:35
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@AndrewNeely English has used singular they for 700 years. There is zero reason to invent something that isn’t really used. –  tchrist Jan 20 '12 at 18:58
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I have noticed more and more, both his and her being used, not alternatively by paragraph as another suggested, but within larger divisions of the the writing. For example, in a baby book, which covers many, many topics, each topic will use either his or her exclusively. It seems to be a fairly even balance, and not confusing to the reader.

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Either of your suggestions is appropriate in formal written text, with "his" a much more common formulation. "Their" is even more common, but less accepted in the most highly pedantic communities.

If you want to avoid the question altogether, as nohat suggests, simply drop the pronoun. "Each student should save questions until the end" is perfectly standard.

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Boofus' comment to nohat is even better. –  Arlen Beiler Aug 5 '10 at 21:42
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Yeah, but you can't say That's what said instead of That's what he/she said. –  nyuszika7h Feb 5 '11 at 13:22
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There have been a number of efforts to create new pronouns that would be gender neutral. Some other posters here have given examples. But none of these have really caught on. I'll hazard the prediction that none will. It's difficult enough to invent a new word and get people to use it. To invent a new word in a context where people are routinely using an existing word is very difficult. Pronouns are more difficult still as they are used ALL THE TIME. That is, if you invent a new word for, say, a type of fish, someone writing about fish could mention the new word, define it for those unfamiliar with it, and then use it a few times in the following discussion. Someone expecting to learn something new about fish wouldn't be too jarred to learn a new word along with some new facts. But pronouns are used all the time in many contexts -- heck, it almost EVERY context. And they are used over and over. You don't use a word like "it" or "she" just two or three times in a page of text -- you use it dozens of times, often multiple times within one sentence. Using a new pronoun really stands out and is jarring and distracting.

So in real life, the solutions offerred to this problem are:

  1. Stick with the traditional use of "he/him/his" as the generic pronouns. If we are talking about a specific person who is female, of course use "she". If we are talking about a person who is a member of a class which is always or usually female -- like mothers or nurses -- use "she". Otherwise use "he". Disadvantages: May sometimes be misleading, implying that a person must be a male when this is not the case. Advantages: Easy to use. Consistent with traditional use of the language. Offends feminists. (Well, some consider that to be a disadvantage.)

  2. Use "they" as a singular pronoun. Disadvantages: Often considered to be grammatically incorrect because of improper agreement with antecedent. Can be misleading as to whether one person or many is intended. Advantages: Is widely enough used that it is generally understood.

  3. Use pronouns of both genders together, like "he or she" or "him/her". Disadvantages: Quickly becomes awkward, e.g., "After he or she fills in his or her information on the form, he or she should specify whether he or she wants the form returned to him or her ..." In some cases creates ambiguity about whether one or two people are involved, e.g. "Give this to him or her" -- does that mean that the person I give it to may be of either sex, or that there are two people and I must give it to one or the other? Advantages: Clearly indicates that the person can be of either sex. No grammatical inconsistency.

  4. Alternate use of genders, either within a "short space" or a "long space". When done within a very short space this can be confusing, like "He should do A and then she should do B." Clearly sounds like two people are involved. But if, say, you are giving two examples of jobs that must be performed, you could use "he" to refer to the person in the first example and "she" in the second. Disadvantages: Requires an extra effort during composition to continually switch genders, possibly re-writing all the pronouns in a paragraph if you move things around in editing. May still be distracting depending on context. Advantages: Avoids all grammar problems while still maintaining a form of gender neutrality.

  5. Reword sentences to always use a plural. For example, instead of saying, "Each student should bring his book", say, "The students should bring their books", etc. Disadvantages: May lead to implicit changes in meaning, e.g. from identifying an individual responsibility to a collective responsibility. In some cases it may be impossible without changing the meaning, like try to reword, "He was the only person who volunteered" to use the plural without changing the meaning. Advantages: No problems with grammatical correctness.

Personally I generally use #1 for formal writing (because it retains strict grammatical correctness), and #2 for informal writing and speech.

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I would say that the disadvantages of #1 include not just being potentially misleading, but also the reason that it offends feminists: it perpetuates a male-centric worldview that disadvantages women. When everyone uses male pronouns in instances of indeterminate gender, it biases the imagination towards men and against women, and that has real-world effects. –  nohat Mar 8 '12 at 23:48
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@nohat True, but only if you don't think of "he" as being generic, or to the extent that you read "he" and assume male. –  Jay Mar 9 '12 at 14:33
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I've seen (and used in one job) a recommendation to switch between "his" and "her", switching each paragraph.

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This is very confusing to me, as I am conditioned to infer that "his" and "her" refer to different people. I am quite comfortable with either one consistently (or "his or her" or "their"), but I cannot stand it if you switch between them. –  Peter Shor Mar 13 '11 at 4:14
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@peter I've seen this a fair amount in non-fiction from various fields. It is distracting because of its rarity, perhaps, but being reminded to subvert the dominant paradigm is its own reward. –  jbelacqua Mar 17 '11 at 1:46
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@jgbelacqua: if you wrote a novel where you gave the heroine a different name and ethnicity on every page, this would also subvert the dominant paradigm, but I doubt it would add to its legibility. –  Peter Shor Jun 8 '11 at 0:36
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@peter I wouldn't use 'legibility' here, but I believe I see your point. I've only seen this used for different hypothetical persons('the student,' 'the instructor,' etc.). If it is gender-switching the same person, I can see where you would be alarmed that anyone would attempt it. I don't know that names or ethnicities are relevant here. Though it sounds like an interesting novel (perhaps written in lojban?). –  jbelacqua Jun 9 '11 at 1:21
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His is correct. All others are for specific cases only. There has been some political motivation in recent years to change it, but it is what it is.

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I found the word hes at chem-bla-ics.blogspot.com/2010/12/what-is-hes.html - but I couldn't find any reference for that - I hope it's not his own concoction. According to the blogger, 'hes' is a (probably obsolete) singular neuter pronoun:

hes - pronoun

  1. Used to refer to a person whose gender is unspecified, unknown, or irrelevant.

Typical use: hes was a scientist born in the late 20th century.

The only reference I could find is from yourdictionary.com where hes is defined as "a variant of he".

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Interesting, but I couldn't find another mention of this. I think this is one of the pronouns that people are creating to solve the "what's the gender neutral pronoun" question. –  simchona Aug 22 '11 at 8:25
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Historical note (USA). When I started learning English, I was taught unequivocally that he/him/his was to be used when referring to a singular person of unknown gender (e.g. a hypothetical person). Then while I was still in school there was a long, concerted effort by feminists to change this usage as they saw it as making females feel like second class people. As an example, they would ask, how do you fill in the blank in this sentence:

If a child wants to become a doctor, (blank) should be encouraged.

If you fill in the blank with he (as I was taught and had been the rule for a very long time), the argument goes, you are sending a message to girls that they should not be encouraged to become doctors. I found it very irritating because the rules I had just learned were being challenged. Even worse, there was no agreed upon new rule and I was still in that childhood phase of wanting strict rules about whatever I was learning. Many alternatives were proposed, and for more than a decade writers struggled with the issue, but by now the most widely accepted solution is to use the singular they. If a child wants to become a doctor, they should be encouraged. I have come to fully embrace it.

Edit: I have been enlightened through this Q&A as to much earlier examples of this same kind of argument, such as:

It would be interesting if each of the leading poets would tell us what he considers his best work.

--"Famed grammarian and linguist" Otto Jespersen, Progress in Language: With Special Reference to English, 1894

This is the first I've heard of such arguments despite having had many arguments over he versus they in the 1970's and 1980's. I will simply point out that while it does show that the argument is quite old, it also shows that the controversy is quite old.

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Those who feel the need to do so can often dodge the issue by using a plural: 'If children want to become doctors, they should be encouraged.' –  Barrie England May 20 '12 at 7:45
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@Barrie, Yes there are several alternatives as the other answers point out and I alluded to. I've caved to using the singular they and I feel I'm firmly in the majority in 2012. –  Old Pro May 20 '12 at 9:17
    
I, too, but I don't regard it as caving in. Singular 'they' and its derivatives have a long and respectable pedigree: crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html –  Barrie England May 20 '12 at 10:00
    
The concerted effort by feminists to change it only came after a long, concerted, and never entirely successful effort by predominantly male grammarians to eliminate the singular "they" and replace it by "he". –  Peter Shor Jul 13 '13 at 19:45
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NPR did an interesting story about the use of "Yo" as a gender neutral pronoun: "'Yo'! Baltimore Kids Create a Pronoun", NPR, January 31, 2008

A study was done and was published in the journal American Speech: "A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A Preliminary Study".

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There is noteworthy precedent for it in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Oberon tells Puck about the magic purple flower:

The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid
Will make or man or woman madly dote
Upon the next live creature that it sees.

The rejection or even revulsion that this obvious solution provokes (as does the old-fashioned use of this same pronoun for an infant) suggests that we hold the person/thing distinction sacred, far more important even than the male/female distinction. Would that our culture more generally bore out that suggestion.

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