I'm editing a paper in which the writer (a native French speaker) refers to "the self" using masculine pronouns (him, his, himself). I would normally use "it" (and its, itself) in this situation. I come from a psychology background, however, where "the self" is often not equal to/the same as a person; there can be multiple selves (inner, false, true, etc.).

Has anyone encountered this? It feels wrong to me to refer to "the self" with masculine pronouns, but I'm not sure if it's my particular discipline that has given me this sensibility.

Here's an example:

"As gifts are predicated on the generosity of the self, acts of assistance, likewise, depend on his pity."

"The self," here, is referring to a generic or abstract person.

Thanks in advance for any thoughts!

  • I can't see any great argument against using neuter terms, as for the arm, leg, ear, brain and heart. The mind, heart (metaphorical) and self are more 'person-related', but not independent persons (ie not me as a person as distinct from my mind as another ...). – Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '15 at 17:15
  • 1
    I think it is clearer as he would refer more readily to the male "owner" of the self. – Chris H Feb 19 '15 at 17:37
  • 1
    I don't understand this question. Surely the cited text only arises because in French son means either his or its according to context. – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '15 at 17:50
  • 1
    As gifts are predicated on one's generosity, acts of assistance likewise depend on one's pity. – Jim Feb 19 '15 at 18:29
  • The question is whether it/its or he/his is correct in referring to a generic self in English. The text was composed in English, not translated from French. I merely mentioned the author's first language because it might throw some light on the issue - for someone fluent in both languages, perhaps. I do believe your comment about the French "son" reveals how this issue arose. But my question is whether he/his or it/its is correct in reference to a generic self. – legno Feb 19 '15 at 19:15

I see nothing wrong with using the masculine to refer to an abstract self especially if the person is a man. For example,

I had a dream last night where I spoke directly to my true inner self, and I didn't like what he said.

On the other hand, I suppose that if the abstraction is so strong that one no longer envisages the self as human, one would probably instead use "it."

  • I think in the more literary sense you use, *he * works. In a rather dry psychological sense (as I read the question) especially with the possibility of multiple selves, that abstraction is assumed. But +1 for the general case. – Chris H Feb 19 '15 at 20:58
  • The problem with your example is that a woman might well write she when referring to the self. When we talk about a person, I would go with it. – oerkelens Feb 19 '15 at 21:15

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.