English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I would like to treat a user as a non-gender noun and refer to it with the gender-neutral pronoun, it. E.g.,

The user defines two variables, x and y. It then multiplies each variable by a prime number.

However, on Wikipedia I found this:

The word "it", however, has an extremely impersonal connotation, even offensive, in common usage and is rarely used in English to refer to an unspecified human being or person of unknown gender. This is because the word "it" connotes that the person being specified is inferior to a person or is an object.

Is to appropriate to refer to a person of unknown sex as it?

Should I rephrase my sentence as follows:

The user defines two variables, x and y. The user then multiplies each variable by a prime number.

share|improve this question
The correct gender-neutral pronoun for English over the last 700 years has always been and remains they. You cannot use it for animate, and in particular, for a human animate antecedent. – tchrist Feb 1 '12 at 4:06
@tchrist: Or he. – Cerberus Feb 1 '12 at 4:07
@tchrist: I think your restriction to animals whose sex you don't know goes to far: calling any dog it would be acceptable to most people, I'd say. But it may sound a bit less affectionate to some (probably depends on the speaker/dialect?). – Cerberus Feb 1 '12 at 4:40
@tchrist: Well, he is not. Perhaps you're reading too much in this. – Cerberus Feb 1 '12 at 4:50
@MonicaCellio I think that’s actually closer to an ‘existential it’ than to what you’re thinking. ‘Is it time yet?’ ‘There’s somebody at the door, dear. Oh, is it the postman? It is.’ We are not calling the postman an it there, you know. That’s the ‘It’s raining out’ and ‘It’s about time’ and ‘It’s hard to say’ kind of it. Doesn’t count. – tchrist Feb 1 '12 at 18:36
up vote 2 down vote accepted

It is pejorative with reference to living beings, esp. social beings. It refers to an inanimate object.

Stay with the user throughout, for consistency, for political correctness and for consideration towards the reader.

Next, rephrase sentences to circumvent the issue of direct reference:

The user defines two variables, x and y. Then multiplies each variable by a prime number.

should do.

True, earlier some people used to refer to a newborn as it, but that is out of ignorance of the niceties. Never done in formal writing.

share|improve this answer
Will the down voter kindly, ah well, give a piece of 'their' mind? Or is that an 'it' :)? – Kris Feb 1 '12 at 8:54
If you edit out all pronouns, the author ends repeating "the user" many times. Also writing sentence fragments, as in your answer. This results in the author producing prose that sounds absolutely terrible. The author would be much better served by choosing one or several non-impersonal pronouns and sticking to them. If the author is uncomfortable with using "they", an alternative is for the author to alternate "he" and "she", switching pronouns each section. – Peter Shor Feb 1 '12 at 12:04
@PeterShor In technical writing, the objective is to unambiguously convey the information, and much less about a pleasant reading experience. There are style guides for the purpose that generally advocate preference of semantics over 'style'. User guides do not often make for 'prose' in a strictly literary sense. – Kris Feb 1 '12 at 12:12
But are there any style guides that recommend doing away with all pronouns? And using sentence fragments? If the objective is to convey the information as clearly and unambiguously as possible, there should be no objection to using he, since hamstringing the author by requiring that he rewrite his prose so as to use no pronouns will generally result in loss of clarity. And while he/she is ugly, using it will result in text that is much clearer and comprehensible than text that is rewritten so as to leave out all pronouns. – Peter Shor Feb 1 '12 at 16:38
@PeterShor I’ve really done some hard thinking about this, and I honestly cannot think of any possible occasion that genuinely calls for any of ‘he or she’, ‘him or her’, ‘his or hers’, or ‘his or her’, depending on whatever case should happen to be called for in that slot. I really cannot. It sounds horribly awkward and unnatural. If you don’t believe me, ask anybody on the street what he or she thinks about giving his or her opinion about all this, and whether he or she would mind if you gave him or her your own opinion to supplement his or hers. I-N-S-A-N-E – tchrist Feb 1 '12 at 18:44

I'm afraid it would be wrong. You should never use it to refer to people, except perhaps when the word you are referring to is child and its sex unknown. You are not alone: on this website there are probably a hundred questions about which pronoun should be used for a person of unknown sex.

  • The traditional neutral pronoun for a person is he, his, him: "The user does x. Then he throws his mouse out of the window."
  • Most people now use they, their, them instead: "The user does x. Then they throw their mouse(/mice?) out of the window."

Both forms are probably acceptable to most people. Some find he sexist (which I think is nonsense); others find using they confusing because it is plural. Sometimes people use she as a compromise, because they find he sexist and they ugly; but this is still rare. The choice is yours.

share|improve this answer
+1. Many people often write "he or she" or "he/she" or just "s/he" in this context. My preference is "they", unless that causes unnaturalness later in the sentence. I'd be comfortable with "they then multiply each variable by a prime number", but not entirely comfortable with "they throw their mouse out the window". I think it's because a mouse is typically owned by just one person, which makes "their mouse" sound weird. And I would NEVER say "it" for a child. – user16269 Feb 1 '12 at 4:06
It’s not as though people just now started using they there, you know. This has always been a part of English. It’s quite well documented. The problem is that the Latinistas had no slot in their grammar for it, so they got all uppity about something they had no business fussing about. – tchrist Feb 1 '12 at 4:07
@tchrist: And that's why it has been advised against for the past century or two. You can choose to go back to a previous wave to justify they, or to the one after that for he. Besides, they was never universal: it's just old. I bet he is older. There is no objective standard. Style is extremely subjective, though it can assume a semblance of objectivity through intersubjectivity, consensus. – Cerberus Feb 1 '12 at 4:15
Shall we then restrict you to plural concordance in nouns? You should put your hats on your heads. You should pick up your mice. Makes no more sense than doing so for singular they. They is perfectly fine as a singular, just as you is. Or you are. Whatever. You just doesn't like it. Most people don't have that problem. Thankfully. – tchrist Feb 1 '12 at 4:21
Getting slightly off-topic, but, strange as it may sound, mouses is considered an acceptable alternative plural to mice (when speaking of the computer device, not the rodent). – Amos M. Carpenter Feb 1 '12 at 6:34

I think it has already been well established that you cannot use 'it' to describe a person. However, I also think it is very important that you know that one does not use the word 'he' in a situation that could involve a male or a female subject. Gender neutral language is now considered correct usage in universities and academia.

You could say 'he/she' but as someone pointed out above 'they' is the preferable option. It's like we often use 'their' for possession when we cannot say 'his' or 'her' since we don't know the gender of the possessor, e.g. 'The child wanted to by a lollypop but was disappointed as their favourite flavour was sold out'. In your example, use the third person plural pronoun 'they' and you can't go wrong.

Somebody above mentioned that the need for gender neutral language is nonsense to them. It is actually very important and regardless of your stance on the matter it is now considered correct and gender-specific language (usually masculine), such as 'he', (when referring to a someone of an unidentified gender) is frowned upon and considered outdated and incorrect. In this day and age, using gender specific language almost looks uneducated or in extreme cases - sexist.

share|improve this answer
Notice that I just said in my comment above, 'Somebody aboved mentioned that the need for gender neutral language is nonsense to them.' I used the word 'them' rather than 'it' even though I am only speaking about one individual (whose gender I don't know). – Rachel Feb 1 '12 at 5:39
What 'universities and academia consider correct usage' is, fortunately, not determinative. And if you use the third person plural pronoun for a singular subject, you have immediately gone wrong, no matter how noble your intentions. – TimLymington Feb 2 '12 at 14:07
Actually, they third person plural pronoun can be used for a singular subject. How do we know this? Because we see it happening all the time. There is no supreme authority on the English language and, in my opinion, we need to sometimes look beyond the traditional rules and see how the word is actually being used today. – Rachel Feb 3 '12 at 16:36
dailywritingtips.com/… 'the singular they is widely accepted in written British English, and it is well documented in the works of many great writers, including Auden, Austen, Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, Shaw, Thackeray, and Trollope. It was the singular pronoun of choice in English for hundreds of years before, in 1745, an otherwise-reasonable grammarian named Anne Fisher — yes, a woman — became possibly the first person to champion he as the universal pronoun of choice.' – Rachel Feb 3 '12 at 16:40
and finally from the same site as above - 'According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.” Meanwhile, R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, predict the inevitable dominance of the singular they.' So I'm sorry TimLymington I think this is a matter of debate and your comment reflects one side, it is not a definite rule. – Rachel Feb 3 '12 at 16:41

Contrary to the claims that one never uses it to refer to humans, we in fact do so regularly when announcing someone: "Who's calling?" "It's Joe."

share|improve this answer

English today lacks a unanimously agreed-upon gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun; I use they, which has been used throughout the history of the language, though may be regarded as incorrect in modern usage.

At any rate, they is significantly less incorrect when referring to things that have a gender than it, except in satirical usage, as in "I think it wants food."

I have seen at one point the construct xe, or with an italicized x, as xe; a few times, I have seen an alternation between he and she used between paragraphs. I dislike these usages, as they are generally nonstandard and can be confusing.

See: http://xkcd.com/145/

share|improve this answer
In some communities, gender-neutral pronouns are the norm. They have an advantage over he/she and similar, in that they don't reinforce the gender binary. (Yes, I hang out with trans and genderqueer people, and straight cis people who nonetheless user gender-neutral pronouns to refer to their friends and family.) – TRiG Apr 25 '12 at 19:29

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.