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Reading different specifications and manuals I've noticed that more often and often pronouns she or her are being used when some unknown person's behavior is described.

For example: "when user opens the first screen, let she be notified about something" or "let user input her address". Actually, I've seen more versatile examples but cannot remember anything nice now.

Is it a last-years tendency? Or is it something only UK-specific? Are there any rules about it? Or, maybe, is it applicable only for written document/spoken language?

I'm not an informant (as you've already guessed) and it's very important to me how should I write in official correspondence with British/US customers and not to hurt their feelings?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The pattern of using she for an unknown referent in formal writing is a contemporary attempt to balance out the perceived sexism of generic he. However, most English speakers find generic she to be at least somewhat marked or surprising, so many of the works that I've seen that use generic she specifically mention that they will be doing so in their introduction. Generic she is also sometimes used to disambiguate between two participants in an action, such as in a game manual where one player is consistently called she and one he.

However, there is a third alternative which may be preferable for many occasions: singular they.

When the user opens the first screen, they should be notified of their options.

This is the form that most English speakers will use in speech, and it should be acceptable in all but the most formal writing. There is some prescriptivist carping against this form, despite the fact that it has centuries of precedent and divine sanction. These objections can be safely ignored.

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"When the user opens the first screen, they should be notified of their options". Shouldn't that be "When users open the first screen ..." To match the the plural 'they'? –  Ikke Aug 14 '10 at 14:12
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@Ikke: No. The whole point is that in most registers of English, they can be used to refer to a singular person of unknown gender. –  JSBձոգչ Aug 14 '10 at 15:17
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+1 as I just learned something new. –  b.roth Aug 16 '10 at 16:27
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That's an accurate capture of modern usage, but it doesn't mean that I have to be happy about a trend in usage toward more ambiguity. At least it's more palatable than "ey/em/eir/eirs". –  Rob Perkins Jan 14 '11 at 22:39
    
your example can be written as 'When the user[s] opens the first screen, they should be notified of their options.' thus no need for singular they. –  Dan D. Feb 15 '11 at 21:14

This seems to be a growing trend in written texts of late. I believe that the rationale must be a desire to use gender neutral pronouns and balance out the decades (centuries?) of male only pronouns being used throughout literature and written texts.

As long as you are fairly consistent and balanced using gender specific pronouns, there should be no issues. This is assuming that you are not specifically aware of the gender of the recipient.

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Agreed. The usage of female pronouns in texts started becoming more common with the explosion of the political-correctness movement of the late 90’s. As mentioned, it does feel more specific (as though it is referring to a specific female) than when the masculine is used which feels more generic. –  Synetech Mar 22 '11 at 1:27
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I asked a similar question. I have noticed this trend because I am a programmer and noticed that more women are entering the field. So other programmers are using the the feminine form more and more. Probably because it's hard for us to find girlfriends. lol But seriously, I think the best answer is to use they/their when the gender is not known. –  cbmeeks May 17 '11 at 14:58

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