There seems to be a difference between these two pronouns besides the obvious one of animacy. I want to know if people agree or can point out the flaw in my thinking.

I've been attempting to wrangle some pronouns into a constructed language I've been making. In the process of doing so, I've done a lot of research, especially on the English language. For a long time, "it" (the personal pronoun, not the dummy pronoun) has been bothering me, and now I think I know why.

One of the tricks I've developed for determining the fine differences in meaning between nouns is to attempt to replace them with something else to see if the meaning has changed. For conjunctions, I move around the clauses of a sentence in order to figure out the exact mechanism.

It didn't occur to me to attempt this trick with "it" until recently. And when I tried it, I got some interesting results:

1) "Where's my book?" "It's on the table."

2) "Isn't my kitty precious?" "I think it's evil, but whatever."

3) "This Rubik's Cube is driving me crazy!" sigh "Give it to me."

I spent such a long time trying to figure out a noun phrase that worked as a replacement. Originally, I tried to use demonstratives (for reasons that will become clear), but they never sounded right.

Then I figured out this:

"The thing's on the table."

"I think the thing's evil, but whatever."

sigh "Give the thing to me."

Note: "that" (demonstrative pronoun) would not have worked; in cases 1 and 2, that would have sounded wrong. "that thing" might have worked for 2, but it sounds even worse for 1.

I'm not saying that it's a perfect fit; "the thing" may not quite sound right in some circumstances, but it's meaning seems to be remarkably close to "it". I can't think of any examples where it would sound downright wrong. Furthermore, the fact that it sounds awkward in some situations to English speaker's ears may have more to do with the ready-and-waiting "it"; why phrase things so that it takes longer?

This is interesting because if using the definite article together with "thing" is a stronger replacement for "it" than using "that", then a similar trick should work with he/she, right? "the person" perhaps.

Not so:

A) "Who is he?" "He's the President."

B) "Shh! The boss is coming this way." "Ugh, he's such a jerk."

C) "Mom says you're grounded." "Why does she have to ruin everything?"

D) "Annie wants us to go to Six Flags." "She got us tickets? Sweet!"

When I was experimenting with ways to replace he/she, I first hit upon "that person".

"that person" works well for A and B:

"Who is that person?" "That person is the president." "Ugh, that person's such a jerk."

But it only barely works for C or D (if at all). I instinctively know why; family and friends seem too close in the social deixis for "that person" to work. People who you know seem to be barred from the use of "that person" in the discourse.

"that" has even less of a success rate; it only seems to fit with A:

"Who is that?" "That's the president."

Both "this" and "that", when used to refer to people (this is my father, these are my friends, that's Annie by the bunch bowl, etc...) seem to work best when used in questions or introductions. Why is that?

"the person" flat out does not work at all. The definite article is simply too vague, for some reason.

So, to recap: "the thing" seems to work reasonably well as a replacement for "it", and sometimes demonstratives work better, but the other third person pronouns seem to require at least a demonstrative in its replacement, if it can be replaced at all (the referent may be too close for it to work right). Using the definite article just doesn't work.

Is there an explanation for this? Are "it" and "he/she" even more fundamentally different than I originally thought?

  • Try your method for the common answer, "It's me."
    – Martin
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 7:47
  • Hmm. "It" isn't used here in the inanimate third person pronoun sense at all. It is very clearly referring to a person. And I can tell that it works for almost any person at all: "It's him." "It's you." "It's Annie." Very strange. Why is it used like that?
    – Wribro
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 7:56
  • Upon further thought, "it" seems to mean "the person" or "the one" in this type of situation, just as I was questioning about! How weird! I was wondering about the seeming lexical gap!
    – Wribro
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 8:07
  • In this sense, who or what is "it?"Due respect, I can't buy that. you're trying to answer your own question in the same vain as that in which you asked it. Since when do4s "it" have to appear in a "third-person Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 9:35
  • "He/she" is not a pronoun. "He" and "she" are pronouns.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 4, 2014 at 18:55

5 Answers 5


There is no reason to expect that a single noun phrase could substitute for "it" in all cases. "It" refers back to a coreferential antecedent, which will be described differently by different speakers. What matters is that the thing referred to is the same, not that it is described in the same way.

1) "Where's my book?" "It's on the table." it = your book

2) "Isn't my kitty precious?" "I think it's evil, but whatever." it = your kitty

3) "This Rubik's Cube is driving me crazy!" sigh "Give it to me." it = that Rubik's Cube


Yes, "it" has many uses; more than "he" or"she". That doesn't seem surprising. Your question seems to be a thinking-out-loud whereby you are answering for yourself. Anyway, see if this helps----- "he" and "she" refer to people already identified, except in questions: "Who is she?" however, "that" can refer to an unidentified (but visible) person in a question, or to an identified person in a statement: "Who is that?" "That's my brother". You could always substitute "that man" or "that woman", but it's usually superfluous (adds no meaning); typically a speaker uses "that" while actually pointing out whom he means.


I think all natural languages have their shortcomings. If you're creating your own, you can construct such a shortcoming.

I have yet to encounter a language that successfully handles four genders: masculine, feminine, neuter, and indeterminate. Some Eastern languages practically avoid grammatical gender. Some languages only have masculine and feminine genders.

If you want to incorporate four genders into your language, go for it. I think, though, if you would like your constructed language to feel more natural, follow the example of a natural language (maybe one that isn't as much of a hodgepodge as English).


Are "it" and "he/she" even more fundamentally different than I originally thought?

The word "it" refers to an inanimate thing, that is not alive nor was ever alive. "he/she" refers to a human being or animal. Using the word "it" to refer to a human being is insulting and dehumanizing.

  • 1
    -1; People refer to plants as "it" and they are alive. Pets are also often referred to as "it" without issue.
    – MrHen
    Commented Mar 24, 2015 at 15:59
  • Moreover, this question isn't about the politics of "it" versus he/she/they, it's about the way they can be replaced with other pronouns or noun phrases.
    – No Name
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 20:13

Simply put, he and she are pronouns that clearly define gender. They are, and should be, used when one knows the gender of the noun. For instance, when referring to a male, you would not use she, as it would not make any sense.

The pronoun it is used when gender is not explicitly known, or if the noun is, in fact, genderless, or neuter. A good example of this in other languages is das in German, the gender-neutral form of the word the. Because German has nouns that are explicitly gender-neutral, like English does, it requires a different form of the definite article for those nouns. Therefore, it is a gender-neutral pronoun. It only really works best when the gender of a noun is unknown or simply not there, like with inanimate objects. You wouldn't refer to water as male, or a rock as female, for instance.

Using the first sentence from your question, the reason "that" and "that person" work is because, in context, they too work as gender-neutral "pronouns," though they aren't typically used as pronouns. If you didn't know that the President was male, for instance, it makes sense to refer to them as "that" or "that person." The main reason "the person" doesn't work is simply because it's awkward - "Who is the person" sounds stilted and confused, almost as though whoever is saying it doesn't quite grasp the use of the in English.

  • 1
    You have confused grammatical “gender” with the sex of an animate being, which is something else altogether.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 6, 2014 at 21:27
  • German does not have nouns that are explicitly gender-neutral, it has nouns that are explicitly neuter, which is, in fact, a gender. Famously, young girls are neuter (das Maedchen) in German, while many inanimate objects (Der Rock, Die Hose - the skirt and the pants, respectively) are either masculine or feminine.
    – No Name
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 20:00
  • A better example would have been a language like Dutch, which has incompletely merged masculine and feminine into a "common" gender, while still distinguishing neuter. Even here though, it's not the best - many inanimate objects are common rather than neuter, because they used to be either masculine or feminine (and when using personal pronouns, still are)
    – No Name
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 20:06

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