Here's a conversation.

"I saw a salesperson there"

"Was it a girl?"

Is it OK to use "it" when you refer to the salesperson?

Or should you use "that" instead of "it"?

  • A new use for the epicene they? The salesperson? Was they a girl? Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 1:22
  • 3
    Were they female?
    – mplungjan
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 8:10
  • Was it a cat I saw?
    – Jay Elston
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 15:30
  • 1
    @MichaelOwnSartin it would be 'Were they a girl?', not was
    – Merk
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 19:57
  • 3
    Yes, you can say "Was it a girl?" -- That sentence is a truncated it-cleft construction. A non-truncated version could be: "Was it a girl that you saw there?" I had recently written a lengthy post on this exact topic: english.stackexchange.com/a/159041/57102
    – F.E.
    Commented Mar 27, 2014 at 5:54

6 Answers 6


The use of "it" or "that" when referring to a person would depend on context and intent.

In the scenario you lay out, it is correct to say "Was it a girl?", (assuming you didn't see the salesperson and thus don't know their gender). You would not say "that" in such a scenario.

If you were walking with a friend and passed a person of ambiguous gender, you might turn to your friend and ask "Was that a girl?", which could also be read as "Was that person a girl?". (This could be considered insulting to the person of unknown gender, but that doesn't mean the sentence is wrong...just don't say it in their hearing; just as you wouldn't ask that person "Are you a girl?" (for the same reason))

Typically, I would put forward that if you could/would point to a person while making the statement/question, you should use 'that': [while pointing] "Who is that?", "Is that who you mean?" etc.

If instead you are referring to a theoretical person, or a person who you haven't seen with whomever you are with, you would use 'it': "Who was it?"

The above is why you often hear 'it' being used to refer to infants - often, the speaker can't tell the gender and, rather than using an inappropriate pronoun, will use 'it'. When saying "It's a boy/girl", you are explaining that the infant (of previously unknown gender) can now be qualified as a given gender. From then on, the parents, doctors, etc would generally begin using the appropriate pronoun.

That said, if there is a more appropriate pronoun, it should usually be used. "It" and "that" tend to be more objectifying, and thus could be at the least odd and at the worst insulting. In all the examples I gave, an appropriate pronoun can replace both 'that' and 'he': "Who is he?" "Are they who you mean?"/"Is he who you mean?" "Who was she?"


Yes, it's common and generally accepted to use Was it a girl? in this situation, at least in "US English". It could also be Was it a girl (you saw)?

The I have the feeling, but don't know for sure, is that or was that would be used in "British English", instead or alternatively.


"Was it a girl?"

Absolutely right.

  • 3
    Welcome to EL&U. We appreciate your input. This is more of a "comment" than an answer, but once you have earned enough reputation, you will be able to comment, which can include opinions and additional information, such as this Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 2:36

It is not an English Usage Expert that determines the answer to this question. The sentence "Was it a girl?" is fully formed as a sentence and grammatically correct. It is not outside the realm of understanding as stated, and would not be found unheard in many a jurisdiction, even if one's opinion about the sentence's context might deem it insensitive.

As I say:

In any statement, there exists: what can be said, what should be said, what was said, and what was heard.

It will be obvious to the listener what was meant, and as grammar was established as correct, the rest is opinion. But to make the sentence less offensive, if it needs to be, the use of it or that should be effectively replaced by the person or the salesperson:

Was the [sales]person a girl?

Problem solved. it and that are both wrong, if right/wrong need to be established, because both have the same difficulties as using insensitive gender agnostic pronouns to refer to a person of indeterminate gender. Just be glad that English allows person to be gender neutral.


If I was approached and someone said, "Was it a girl?", I wouldn't answer. I would, instead, want to know why he referred to the salesperson as it. Generally, if your puzzled by someone's appearance, I guarantee, that the most common expression, would be "Was it a girl."

Think about it, you are referring to someone you two just saw. Therefore, saying that refers to that person. Also, it is a bit inhumane. It almost gives the presence that such a person you are referring to is not human, but an object. That, in my argument, gives personage to an already existing subject.

Lastly, if your truly spiteful, saying "was that a girl" give's more power in your argument. It gives off the presence that you are defining the definition of what a woman should be.

  • 5
    What are the most common questions on hearing of the birth of an infant? What is it? Is it a boy or a girl? Is it OK? I delivered babies before ultrasounds were routine. Trust me, no one took offense when I answered, "It's a ...(.)." We also refer to adults as it. Who is it? is used in place of Who's there? Is it you? It's me. I think it's only offensive if done purposely to degrade. Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 2:27
  • @Susan In that situation, yes. Even I have said, "Is it a girl or boy?" The situation presented here refers to something specific, in particular to a salesperson's gender. Someone that both parties --the questioner and listener-- have encountered and experienced. The baby example does not have the benefit of both parties experiencing the same situation. In other words, the questioner asking you the gender of a child, does not know -because they never experienced it. Whereas, the salesperson, can give a personage of an answer on gender. Experience and encounters can define a relative answer
    – justinpage
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 2:35
  • @Susan, if that salesperson is not a baby and if that 'it' is not a dummy 'it', I don't see any reason to not use 'she', though. 'Was she a girl?' Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 2:36
  • @ElberichSchneider - It seems obvious that if they knew the person was a female, they would use "she", yet the only use of that sentence that makes sense to me is if one is asking for clarification on the developmental stage of said female. Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 2:39
  • 1
    @KLVTZ: where do you read both parties encountered the salesperson? One person met that salesperson somewhere and is reporting that to another person who might never have seen that salesperson, and who, up till now, was not even aware of the existence of that salesperson.
    – oerkelens
    Commented Feb 6, 2014 at 15:42

The proper use would be "Is that a girl?" Using "Was it a girl?" makes a girl seem like an object. Using "that" makes it sound like you're actually talking about a person. If you are unsure of the gender, you should still use "Was that a girl?" because you are not referring to an object, but to a person.

  • In "US English", we would hear it but not that in this context. Commented Jan 15, 2015 at 12:54

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