I don't like the options that are usually given in the "gender-neutral pronoun" debate. The singular they offends my prescriptivist sensibilities. His/her constructions are clunky and look terrible. The generic he is simple and I find Strunk and White's (3rd edition, 1979) defense of it persuasive, but many these days consider it unacceptable. The generic she is still better to me than the singular they, but it seems retaliatory and besides has problems similar to those of the generic he.

I recently noticed a fourth option: use he and she as generic pronouns on an alternating basis. For example, if referring to a student, use she the first time. After completing the section of the discussion, referring to this imaginary student exclusively as she, the next paragraph or page introduces a second example student, and for this example the pronoun used is he.

The author intends that both examples be understood to refer to students of any gender, and carefully avoids gender stereotyping, such as regularly using "she" when referring to an art student and "he" when referring to a science student. The author also never switches the pronoun in the middle of an example.

This method has its drawbacks, of course, but I'd like to know if it has been recommended by any published style guides. If not recommended, has it been considered a viable option?

This question is different from the many others on this subject because a) I am asking about a gender-neutral option I have not seen discussed on ELU, and b) I am asking for style guides, not merely "is this acceptable?"

  • similar problems as? ... to?
    – TRiG
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 12:47
  • 3
    They can pry my generic he from my cold dead hands. Efficiency over all. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 12:53
  • @TRiG Sorry; not sure if I understand your comment, but if I do, I believe my edit has addressed it. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 12:55
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    I've seen it used, but it's unnecessarily confusing. The question is whether one chooses to satisfy one's sensibilities or ones' addressees. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 13:52
  • Not only does he/she, him/her, his/hers satisfy some people's needs to be neutral, but also they don't look so confusing. Altering it doesn't sound like a good idea.
    – user140086
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 14:31

3 Answers 3


I've worked as a copy editor with numerous in-house style guides at different publishing houses, as well as with various style guides intended for a wider audience (Chicago, AP, MLA, Oxford, Words Into Type, Harvard Blue Book), and I can't recall ever having seen one that imposed an alternating-gender-pronoun approach. I have occasionally encountered this approach in books and periodicals, and have supposed that the author or publisher adopted it to emphasize the randomness of assigning gender to a person in a particular occupation or to a generalized human being, but I've never seen it required as a matter of house style.

The reason that it hasn't caught on as an approach to gender neutrality, I suspect, is that it has the effect of making gender more prominent in the course of a book or article. Whereas "he or she" or "she or he" or "(s)he" or "they" declines to assign a single gender to the hypothetical or representative person in a narrative, and indeed disposes of the issue of gender specificity by assigning both genders or neither gender to the working pronoun, the alternating-gender approach insists that each such pronoun—and the person it points to—is either male or female.

Rather than emphasizing (as I imagine it intends to) the interchangeability of male and female pronouns in generalized or hypothetical settings, it emphasizes that this first person is female, this second person is male, this third person is female, and so on. The reader is presented with an endless series of pronouns with alternating assigned genders instead of dealing with a text where gender assignment is avoided because it is unnecessary and irrelevant.

Undoubtedly, the distracting aspect of systematically alternating the gender of pronouns applied to generic individual people would diminish if the practice became the de facto standard in speech and writing, but even then I don't see how it would offer any meaningful advantage over the gender-neutral alternatives that are currently more common.


A study by Laura Madson and Jennifer Shoda, 2006, found that the technique had unfortunate side effects on readers: "Readers overestimated the frequency of feminine pronouns in alternating text except when they occurred in an essay on a traditionally feminine topic. Readers also thought alternating pronouns were gender-biased and low in overall quality." The clunky "she or he" (or whatever) works better. The paper also reviews a lot of previous literature on the question for anybody who wants to pursue it.

  • 1
    You didn't directly answer the question but documentary evidence that alternating pronoun gender in text has garnered negative feedback may well be useful to OP.
    – Colm
    Commented Sep 20, 2018 at 13:53

Since proving conclusively whether any style guides exist that advocate or disparage the alternating gender approach is likely to be unanswerable, I'll address the underlying question as to whether this is a good approach.

In reference to the above, you mention that:

This method has its drawbacks

I don't really see any.

Student A has a train to catch; He doesn't want to be late.
Student B is waiting at the airport.  Her flight leaves in 15 minutes.

Sure, we could call them A and B going forward, but that is somewhat impersonal and dehumanizing. Generic he would not be helpful since we would lose some information.

Perhaps someone would object based on the number of times he or she is used overall, he is always used first, or she doesn't have enough emotional depth.

This would reveal more about biases of the critic than the author, I think.

  • The drawback has been mentioned in the debate: you are (implicitly) conceding/asserting that he can only refer to males. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 15:12
  • @TimLymington Accuracy is not a drawback. If the target of the pronoun is uncertain as to its current nature, I believe Xe has been created for this purpose. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 15:24
  • Your own opinion is not the same as 'accuracy', either as to the non-existence of unspecific he or the existence of xe Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 15:35
  • @TimLymington It's true that my opinion is not always accurate; else I would be a wealthier man. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 15:44

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