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My mother tongue is Latin-based so I'm used to differences in male/female for neutral words. I don't know how this would work with some words in English.

If the "victim" in a sentence is neutral (ie: it could be either a man or a woman, in this context it makes absolutely no difference and we don't know if it's a man or a woman), should I use "his" or "her"?

My instinct would tell me to use his but I seem to remember encountering her in such a neutral situation before.

EDIT:

Here is the exact sentence (it's from a IT Security paper I'm writing):

Finally the paper will demonstrate how the attacker may control the contents of the web pages delivered to the victim as well as redirect his downloads towards malicious files.

As you can see I used his here, is that correct?

marked as duplicate by Armen Ծիրունյան, Lynn, Edwin Ashworth, tchrist, Chenmunka Nov 7 '14 at 10:25

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    Use 'their'. There are other problems with the sentence. There is nothing specifically incorrect, but I had to read it three times to grasp what it was saying. There is no punctuation. Moreover I was not initially clear if the 'his' referred to the attacker or the victim. Were I writing it I think I would say: Finally the paper will demonstrate how the attacker may: i) Control the contents of web pages delivered to the victim and ii) redirect the victim's downloads toward malicious files. – WS2 Nov 6 '14 at 21:58
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    @ArmenԾիրունյան: that question is more specific/limited than this one, so I disagree that it's a duplicate. – Marthaª Nov 7 '14 at 3:40
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There really is no correct answer to this question, and not even a good consensus convention.

Here are some options, such as they are:

  1. Generic he Doing this, however, in English -- a language without gendered nouns -- can prove inaccurate and may strike some readers as sexist. You could also do a generic she but this will definitely read as reactionary and may distract readers unintentionally.

  2. Singular they This is probably the most common in non-formal writing and in speech. But many consider the mere idea of treating a plural pronoun as singular to be offensive to proper usage.

  3. s/he or he or she You can always choose not to choose! This however can read as needlessly verbose and call attention to itself.

  4. Alternate Many people opt to use male and female pronouns in alternate. This has the same issue as 1, but avoids the preferential treatment of the male gendered term. For longer texts (essays, books) this strikes me as the best approach.

  5. Avoid the pronoun This can be awkward, but in some cases you can be slightly less economical and avoid the pronoun altogether. In your example sentence, you might write: "Someone could attack a victim and take that person's coat."

Again, no right answers here. Style guides differ and some just throw up their hands and remain neutral on the subject.

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    Consider making victims plural if that's possible. Then "their" and "they" work. "Finally the paper will demonstrate how the attacker may control the contents of the web pages delivered to victims as well as redirect their downloads towards malicious files." – Val Nov 6 '14 at 22:55
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    What Val said: when in doubt, pluralize. – Marthaª Nov 7 '14 at 3:37
  • In longer texts, if you can provide something like a preface, you can explain how you deal with gender-biased language, which gives you a chance to defend whatever choice you make. The picture of hordes frothing at the mouth about the mere idea of using well-attested constructs of Standard English strikes me more as amusing than as a deterrent. – Charles Stewart Nov 7 '14 at 9:05
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If the victim is neutral, why not use "their"?

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    Please support your answer with sources. That makes your answer stronger, and more likely to be viewed as correct. Otherwise, even if it's correct, it's likely to be viewed as only opinion. The site tour and the help center will give you guidance on how to use this site. – anongoodnurse Nov 7 '14 at 2:28
  • @celestialroad I agree with "their" because it completely avoids ambiguity. However, my teachers/professors always call me out on such usage because they think I'm confused about the plurality of the victim. Is "their" correct even though it doesn't agree in number? – Xoque55 Nov 7 '14 at 2:40
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From Wikipedia:

While the use, in formal English, of he, him or his as a gender-neutral pronoun has traditionally been considered grammatically correct, such use can also be considered to be a violation of gender agreement, as well as being prejudicial and, sometimes, confusing or absurd...To redress the perceived imbalance resulting from use of generic he, some authors now adopt a generic she instead, or alternate between she and he.

My suggestion would be to use "his or her." It's fairly common to see "their" used in cases like this, but it's awkward as it doesn't agree in number with "the user."

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    Think of "their" like "you" - in this context it doesn't distinguish between singular and plural. – curiousdannii Nov 6 '14 at 23:33
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    @curiousdannii very good point. In the southern US "y'all" is commonly used as the plural form of "you," but up north I'd sound ridiculous saying it. I'm surprised to see so much support for "their," but your tip makes it much easier for me to swallow. Thanks. – Joel Anair Nov 7 '14 at 13:15
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English does not have fixed gender based pronouns, other than customary practices which are historical not grammatical. Maybe you are confusing English with French.

In answer to your question, you can use either in a neutral context, and it would be equally valid (grammatically). There are no cases where either the feminine or masculine must be used.

For example, it is customary to refer to a boat as "she" or "her" however it is also grammatically correct to refer to it as "it", and even "he" would not be particularly strange. It is about customs, culture, context and reader expectation not grammatical rules.

  • Please support your answer with sources. That makes your answer stronger, and more likely to be viewed as correct. Otherwise, even if it's correct, it's likely to be viewed as only opinion. The site tour and the help center will give you guidance on how to use this site. – anongoodnurse Nov 7 '14 at 2:28
  • @medica: English grammarians agree that English lacks grammatical gender (which is a syntactic, not semantic property). See the refs at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:CapnPrep/Gender_in_English – Charles Stewart Nov 7 '14 at 8:51

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