"When he found his seat on the plane, Sam recognized the person who was sitting in the seat next to his. It? She? was a woman he knew."

Which is more common/natural? Isn't 'it' more correct – grammatically speaking – than 'she', since 'a person' can be a 'he' or a 'she', and obviously you cannot use the singular 'they' here?

  • I don't understand, but if Sam recognized that the person was a woman, why do you doubt that 'She' is incorrect? After all, 'He' and 'She' are the last barricade between males and females in the English language. Jan 4, 2014 at 12:56
  • 3
    But "It was a woman he knew" works too
    – mplungjan
    Jan 4, 2014 at 13:33
  • 1
    @user58319, as for your edit: both "she" and "it" are grammatically correct. Semantically "she" is correct in the example you provided as well, because Sam recognized the person as a woman. If, for example, we are not sure of the gender of a person, we are likely to stick with "it". E.g.: "I looked through the window and saw Sam hugging someone far away. I think it was a friend of his".
    – Vilmar
    Jan 4, 2014 at 13:56
  • Is this is composition still in the drafting stage? I would find it more natural to read: "Sam recognized the woman sitting in the seat next to his. She was a woman he knew." I'm not sure I see the case for gender neutrality here, and I don't think the repetition of "woman" is ponderous -- it's actually somewhat rhythmic (to my ear/eye).
    – Dɑvïd
    Jan 4, 2014 at 14:31
  • I see… In French, there is some kind of 'objective' assessment of the situation (we are not in Sam's mind and whether or not he recognized the person to be a 'he' or a 'she' does not make any difference to the grammatical fact that 'a person' can be one or the other!). In English, by contrast, there seems to be a 'subjective' assessment of that same situation (we are in Sam's mind, and the fact that he recognized the person to be a 'she' has to be taken into account). It is not 'what is seen' but 'how it is seen' which seems to determine the choice of words in English! Interesting!
    – user58319
    Jan 4, 2014 at 14:36

1 Answer 1


It was a woman he knew is perfectly good, but a different construction from she was a woman he knew: It there is not a gender-neutral personal pronoun* but a dummy or presentative subject: it can even be used with plurals (Who was at the door? It was everybody from next door), because it doesn't refer.

There is no universally accepted gender-neutral personal pronoun in English; I prefer they, but some people object to it. But in this context, the gender is known, and I think all English speakers would use she (unless they used the presentative it).

*It is rarely used to refer to people, except (by some) to babies whose sex they don't know (Others object to this usage).

  • Is 'it' in 'It is raining.' a presentative or dummy subject?
    – user58319
    Jan 4, 2014 at 15:24
  • I can understand that 'it' in 'It is raining.' does not refer to anything, but in your example sentences, doesn't 'it' refer to the interrogative pronoun 'who'?
    – user58319
    Jan 4, 2014 at 15:26
  • I don't think so. Consider the exchange Who is it? It's me. The first it certainly doesn't refer (you can use it even when talking to the person whose identity you are querying). I'm pretty sure the same applies to the second.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 4, 2014 at 21:12
  • Isn't "Who is it?" the same as "Who is the person behind the door?", and "It's me.", "The person behind the door is me.", with 'it' being a pronoun representing 'a person whose gender has not been identified yet'? (In passing, this is the first time I have read, or heard, 'refer' used intransitively!)
    – user58319
    Jan 4, 2014 at 23:02
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    Again, another inutile edit! (And inutile is a proper word.) Colin Fine clearly explains when "it" is used by some people for babies. There was NO need to replace never with rarely.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 9, 2015 at 0:37

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