My boss has asked me not to refer to her as she because she says it's disrespectful. After I refer to her by her proper name or by her title, isn't it appropriate to refer to her as she?

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    What is the context? Are you talking to her, with her and others, about her to others? Aug 23, 2011 at 2:37
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    Is your boss English/British by chance? This "etiquette" is very unique to Britain, and even as an Englishman, one I do not at all understand!
    – Noldorin
    Aug 23, 2011 at 3:40
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    Of course getting snitty and telling someone they are being rude, can be impolite as well. Some people get the details of etiquette, but not the big picture.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 23, 2011 at 13:40
  • @Noldorin: I don't think it is unique to Britain: it exists in Holland as well. Aug 23, 2011 at 17:21
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    There's a satisfying video in which Russell Brand calls out new anchors for referring to their guest the third person "You're talking about me as if I'm not here... You shouldn't say 'he' when a person is present. You should refer to that person by their name. That's basic good manners." Feb 19, 2015 at 21:57

7 Answers 7


I believe proper etiquette demands that you should never refer by "he" or "she" to someone who is or is presumed to be taking part in the same conversation. You should use either "you" or a proper name or title ("Cleopatra", "His Majesty", "Mr Archimedes", "my superior"). If you have used her name shortly before (at the very least during the same 'turn' of speaking in a conversation), only then can a pronoun be used, especially in less formal conversations.

However, I'm not sure that is the exact situation you encountered. And perhaps this bit of etiquette isn't as common as I think.

In any case, I can't see how "she" should ever be improper in writing about someone who isn't a party to the conversation.


This book on Personal pronouns in present-day English notes:

Pronouns are commonly used to refer familiarly to people present; however, it can be a sign of animosity to refer to someone you know well by a pronoun rather than their name; in the so-called 'Squidgy' tape from late December 1989 Princess Diana consistently refers to Prince Charles as he. This is comparable to the (mock?) dismissiveness in Arthur Daley's use of Her Indoors to refer to his wife in the television series Minder.

This site on etiquette refers to the use of pronouns when the subject is present as being rude:

The overuse of pronouns has crept unfortunately into our language. The media are the worst at promoting the misuse of forms of address when it comes to elected officials. I was brought up learning the expression " 'she's' the cat's mother". This taught us to refrain from referring to people, especially present, as a pronoun. I therefore agree with you on this one. It may seem awkward at times, and social situations should not be awkward. Remember, too, that conversational and written word flow are different.

It sounds as if your boss has heard this piece of etiquette, and believes in it. You may refer to her as "she" in writing, but when you are in her presence you should use her name or title.

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    In Norfolk, and I have reason to believe across much of eastern England the retort is 'Who's 'she'? The cat's aunt?'
    – WS2
    Aug 28, 2014 at 7:03

The usage of the pronoun while speaking about the present company is considered rude not only in English. I straddle 3 very different cultures and can attest that in Russian, for example, this form of speech sounds even more offensive than in English.

  • It is considered impolite in Dutch as well, though I think most people would do it. Mar 13, 2019 at 17:50

A number of women I know of English origin use the saying "Who's 'she'? the cat's mother?" as a specific rebuke when you refer to someone as "she" who is in the room. Oddly I've never heard it used if a man is referred to as "he".

Now that you know your boss feels this way, the chances are slim-to-none that you can stop by her office and prove to her that she is wrong. Try to avoid this phrasing during in person meetings. For example, if you turn to someone else in the room and say "you know she told you it was due Friday", instead put the name of your boss in the sentence. You will probably not be able to get eliminate the pronoun entirely without a few decades of practice with people who rebuke you every time you do it, but you can make an effort to reduce it, and I hope your boss appreciates that you do.


I'm curious about this topic because it seems so obvious, and yet going by everyone's response it isn't. I am English, but I moved to USA when I was 7 years old, and I've been exposed to a mix of language styles. I don't go by grammatical rules so much as how language "hits my ear." Referring to someone as "he" or "she" while they are present is jarring to me, but the example of using someone's name over and over again is not necessary.

Let's say I (Tracey) am in a meeting and one person says to another, "You and Tracey can do that project together. Perhaps, you can do the planning and she can do the logistics." That sounds fine to me because the speaker began the statement by using my name. Personally, I would prefer my name used twice because that sounds more natural to me, but I doubt that I would have noticed the "she" in this instance. If conversation went on however, and I was referred to as "she" again without qualifying my presence by my name (notice the word "qualifying" here), then I would flinch.

I am not concerned with formality; in fact, I wish I took better control over how much I swear, but we each develop a sense of a speakers regard or intent based on what sounds natural. Referring to me as "she" while in my presence, just doesn't sound natural to me. I try not to take it personally, but I want to raise my hand and say, "Hello! Right here."


As a British person, I don't mind being referred to as 'he' or 'him' by others present, if I've already been mentioned by name. However, in almost every conversation with two or more people these days I get called 'he' or 'him' immediately. Sometimes a possessive adjective might be used instead. Quite recently I was in a group discussing people's varying knowledge of a foreign language, and the person next to me — who was facing the others — remarked offhandedly, 'His [i.e. mine] is all right' (I hadn't been mentioned before). And I even get 'pronouned' in other languages.

However trivial this sounds, I'm late-middle-aged and am finding it increasingly insufferable — it wasn't so bad when it only happened now and then. It's also a very poor form of communication to talk over people instead of to them. One may be made to feel like a child, or psychologically isolated: when A speaks to B using a pronoun instead of C's name, it can imply (I only say can) a certain bond between A and B in which C does not share. And A might be speaking to a number of people, not just one. So if someone wants to comment on me in a group, by all means let them comment to me.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to get this wretched matter (partly) off my chest.

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    Though detailed, The situation is still not totally clear as you describe it. What was it that sounded so troublesome to you? What would you have preferred be said?
    – Mitch
    Jun 8, 2012 at 15:29
  • What I find troublesome is that (to quote my answer) 'in almost every conversation with two or more people these days I get called "he" or "him" immediately'. I am generally not referred to by name first. This kind of thing was less annoying when it only happened now and again. Also, 'if someone wants to comment on me in a group, by all means let them comment to me'. I hope this is clear.
    – user22972
    Jun 29, 2012 at 12:33
  • Perhaps this might be considered a less grievous variant on the situation where you're talking to two people at a party, one of whom you do not know, and the person you do know fails to introduce you to the unknown person. Mar 13, 2019 at 17:56
  • Thanks for this answer. My mum has been telling me "She's the cats' mother" for years (lots of years), and I've never really understood what was bad about it.
    – Kingsley
    Nov 6, 2022 at 3:19

It is not offensive to use pronouns once the subject has either been qualified or is clear.

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