I'm a bit lost in gender neutrality. Please see the example below.

A: What, I got a child‽
B: Sooner or later *he or she* will show up.

From my own research, people put preferences this way: they > she > she or he > he. I think that they, she and he should not be used as it is only one child and we do not know anything about the gender. So she/he does seem to be the most suitable for this sentence. Or is it not?

PS: Would you rather write "he/she" or "he or she"? (I find she before he less natural than vice versa, although people on the internet say...)

  • I haven't noticed any preference for they > she > she or he > he. If you don't want to use "he or she", you can avoid the pronoun entirely and say "Sooner or later the child will show up." – Jeffrey Kemp Apr 22 '14 at 6:33
  • Thanks for the tip. However, it is a part of some quote, so I would rather use another word or expression. – Vochmelka Apr 22 '14 at 6:36
  • If you're quoting someone, and you feel it's an error you can use "(sic)" to indicate that it's a literal quote. It's not, in this case, so you would retain the "he or she". – Jeffrey Kemp Apr 22 '14 at 6:38
  • My bad, it is more like a paraphrase. Anyway, I will stick up with "he or she". Cheers! – Vochmelka Apr 22 '14 at 6:43

We could really do with a gender neutral singular personal pronoun ("it" never seems appropriate as a personal pronoun) but sadly we simply don't have one. There's no single correct answer for how to deal with this, as much of it is embroiled in personal preferences. Common approaches include:

  • Using "he or she" or "she or he" throughout. In writing this is often shortened to "he/she", "s/he" or "(s)he".
  • Choosing one of "he" or "she" (more or less at random) and sticking to it - possibly alternating between them if using lots of different examples. Sometimes this approach is accompanied by an explanatory footnote
  • Using "they" instead of a singular pronoun. Looking up the definition of "they", "used to refer to a person of unspecified sex" is certainly one of the options listed; it is not incorrect to use "they" to refer to a single individual.

My personal preference is the latter, as it strikes me as less cumbersome and retains consistency between the written and spoken word. In my experience this seems to be becoming the more popular approach, although I haven't conducted any research on the matter. As I said earlier though, there is no single objectively correct or most preferable approach.

Edit: The Urban Dictionary lists "thon" as a gender neutral singular personal pronoun but the more conventional dictionaries I looked at don't list that definition, and it has yet to become established in common usage.

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  • 1
    We have gender neutral pronouns...it and they. If you don't like them, what makes you think you will like the next version better. – Oldcat Apr 22 '14 at 17:30
  • Don't forget "thon"! – Jez Apr 22 '14 at 23:42
  • @Oldcat This is true, but "it" is not a personal pronoun (which this question is about) and "they" is also plural which can be confusing. As I've said in my answer though, I think "they" is the preferable one to use – Waggers Apr 23 '14 at 8:42

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