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My question is different. I'm all for gender awareness, but why hasn't a properly defined pronoun "it" been used instead of "he/she" or "he or she", etc. Am I missing something?

Oxford English Dictionary:

It: 1. a. As the proper neuter pronoun of the third person singular.


  1. (used to represent a person or animal understood, previously mentioned, or about to be mentioned whose gender is unknown or disregarded): **It was the largest ever caught off the Florida coast. Who was it? It was John. The horse had its saddle on. **
  • + 1 Interesting question. I was going to answer "because 'it' is not for people" but then I saw your dictionary references that state it can be used for a person when the gender is unknown.
    – b.roth
    Commented Aug 16, 2010 at 16:24
  • 4
    Dictionary.com is plain wrong. "It" in those examples is not semantically a pronoun but a variable: as soon as it is established there is something to refer to, you can't use 'it': "Who was it?" "I don't know." "Well, what did *it say?" (The horse is a different case: you can use 'it' of animals).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Aug 16, 2010 at 16:56
  • Bah whether "it" is a pronoun or a "variable" cannot be plainly wrong or right simply because languages and grammars are not revealed to us or invented by us. We merely find ourselves using them and so analyse them, and not all analyses are going to be the same. They are just various alternative investigations into how things work and none of them are complete or perfect. Commented May 19, 2011 at 14:33

3 Answers 3


I believe that "it" in the case of "it's me" or "it's John" is an expletive. Like Coline Fine commented above, it is a syntactic placeholder, because in English we can't just say "is me/I am" or "is John/John is" (which is fine in other languages, e.g. Spanish). So, dictionary.com is being extremely misleading in the "it's John" example, or even outright wrong, depending on your theoretical point of view.

It's the same expletive-it that shows up when we say things like "it rains a lot here". What rains? The word "it" is here simply because we can't have a verb without some sort of a subject in English; it doesn't refer to any explicit thing.

So, I would say that we don't use "it" to refer to (non-infant) humans, and "it's John" is not a counterexample.

A hundred years ago, in English, the standard gender-neutral pronoun was clearly "he", but in recent years we started finding it inherently sexist. As a result, we are in a wishy-washy period in English where there is a need for a gender-neutral pronoun, but people aren't quite agreed on what it is. In my observation, "they/them/their" is emerging as the clear frontrunner -- certainly this is true in spoken and informal speech.


"I just got a call from someone at the doctor's office." "Well, what did they say?"

  • 3
    Re-emerging. The history of singular they is quite long. Commented Sep 11, 2012 at 17:49
  • 1
    @SevenSidedDie: I said "emerging as the clear frontrunner".
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 1:56
  • Yeah, that's why I said "re-emerging". It used to be the frontrunner before Victorian grammarians needed to invent a new "correct" grammar to distinguish the upper class. It's not an important point. :) Commented Sep 12, 2012 at 2:05
  • When a person says "who's there", the speaker has introduced an unknown entity; in that context, the entity is neither a previously identified male (which would be required for "he"), nor a previously identified female (required for "she"), nor even a previously-identified person (required for "he or she"). It might be an animal, or even a figment of the speaker's imagination (caused e.g. by the sound of an object being knocked over by the wind). Even if the entity happens to be a man, it cannot be referred to as "he" until it has been introduced as a man.
    – supercat
    Commented Oct 6, 2014 at 22:43
  • 1
    @supercat: If someone asks "who's there", the choice of "who" over "what" presupposes that it is a person, no?
    – Kosmonaut
    Commented Oct 31, 2014 at 13:53

As far as I know, the use of it to refer to a person is only limited to children of unspecified sex, as reported by the NOAD too.

it |ɪt|
pronoun [third person singular]
1. used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified: a room with two beds in it | this approach is refreshing because it breaks down barriers.
  • referring to an animal or child of unspecified sex: she was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face.
  • referring to a fact or situation previously mentioned, known, or happening: stop it, you're hurting me.
2. used to identify a person: it's me | it's a boy!

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    +1. "It" can't be used as a gender-neutral 3rd person pronoun because "it" cannot refer to a person except in a handful of special situations. Commented Aug 16, 2010 at 17:06

Shifting away from he and she in general is out of the question. The idea of shifting away from two very established pronouns seems incredibly daunting. Pronouns form a closed class, and closed classes of words are very hard to modify; these two are used a lot. I would bet a dollar that she and he show up in top 100 most used English words in nearly every study or count. Finally consider that you aren't just changing he and she here, but also the objective and personal pronouns, which makes this even more daunting. That said, the pronouns of English have changed relatively recently. The Old Norse paradigm for they was borrowed; her is one remnant of the old system.

Replacing the the gender-neutral he with it seems to make sense based on the semantics posted in the question, but is probably also delayed by the reasons above. Further, in my use referring to any person as it, even a baby, is considered rude. So there's that hump, too.

  • 2
    Actually, there's a change to personal pronouns that's more recent than they replacing hie - the arrival of singular you replacing thou, which is post-Shakespearean. Commented Oct 1, 2010 at 18:49

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