To resolve an issue on Christianity.SE I'd like to know whether it would be legitimate to forgo ever using pronouns to refer to the Holy Spirit.

So, is it required to use a pronoun when the subject is well established, like it's required in the game of Checkers to make a jump even when doing so would be to your detriment? Is excessive wordiness acceptable in certain cases or is it always acceptable? Or does this have nothing what so ever to do with grammar and is simply personal preference?

This seems bad (and unnecessary):

When Bob was seven years old, Bob went to the swimming pool. While Bob was there, Bob jumped off the high dive.

But substitute God for Bob and it doesn't sound as bad. I'd just write the big He, but the question came up on Christianity.SE and I'd like to know if it's required that pronouns are used.

  • Can you give a few examples of the range between acceptable and not acceptable? Something you'd like to say without a pronoun and why with a pronoun it sounds wrong or unacceptable?
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 19:49
  • @mitch, I added an example. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 19:57
  • 3
    OK. So that makes more sense as a question. This being ELU, I thought you were asking the grammatical question whether to use a pronoun or nothing at all. It is always necessary in English to have -something-. But that's not your question. Yours is a style question whether to use 'God' always, or sometimes to use a pronoun. That is not a grammatical question but rather one of style. Grammatically, it is not required to use a pronoun or a noun or a proper noun, as long as there's something. It is personal preference or group/style preference as to which to choose at any reference.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 20:33
  • 1
    (continued)...which is to say that, really, the best ones to judge are those at Christianity.SE. So reask your question there, but leave out all the reference to grammaticality. Ask 'what sounds best?' God everywhere or sometimes using a pronoun or whatever.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 20:35
  • 2
    There are a number of books of fiction where the author manages to write an entire novel without once revealing the sex of the protagonist. So, yes, if you do it carefully, you can get away without using any pronouns, and not result in awkward enough prose that people immediately figure out what's going on. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 20:54

3 Answers 3


There is certainly no obligation to use pronouns, however, repetitive use of the noun can be tiresome. This is especially so if the noun is more than a single word. For example:

The man from Nazareth went down to Jerusalem, and the man from Nazareth cast the vendors out of the temple. The man from Nazareth preached a sermon on the abuse of the temple, and then the man from Nazareth retired to the upper room.

Here, you really need some pronouns, otherwise it just sounds silly. "Holy Spirit" might well fall into that category, though perhaps less so than my example.

However, sometimes not using the pronoun is useful to avoid doctrinal arguments. For example, FumbleFingers uses the feminine pronoun which would certainly cause arguments (or possibly excommunication) in some Churches. This is a pragmatic that may very well trump grammatical brevity in importance.

One final point I did want to make: if you are making reference to the Bible itself, which, as you know, is a translation from Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew, you should be aware that pronouns work somewhat differently in these languages, and you should give due deference to the language experts who made the translations.

  • Belatedly, I've just noticed your "FumbleFingers uses the feminine pronoun". I won't deny it's feasible I may have done this in a larky context sometime in my life, but probably never on ELU, and certainly not on this page. Besides which, if I wanted to ruffle feathers (which I genuinely don't, here), I'd probably opt for (non-capitalised) it. Commented Mar 29, 2012 at 17:40
  • Part of the awkwardness in this example is artificial as there is certainly no need to repeat the full definite description 'the man from Nazareth'. 'The man' would certainly do. Moreover, here you really could use nothing in place of some of the repeats. 'The man from Nazareth went down to Jerusalem and cast the vendors out of the temple. The man preached a sermon on the abuse of the temple and then retired to the upper room.' That is, you don't really need pronouns to avoid this particular example sounding silly.
    – cfr
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 0:06

I would not eliminate the use of pronouns in order to avoid a controversy over the selection of the right one, except in a very short passage of text. The awkwardness of the extra verbiage will at some point outweigh the awkwardness of the pronoun choice, in other words.

  • Yeah, I find it awkward too. Lots of bible translations / Catholic Mass distorters do this though in the name of gender neutrality and to avoid referring to God as It. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 18:34

There is a certain amount of personal preference over which pronouns you use for God, Christ, The Holy Spirit/Ghost, etc.

Arguably it would be "ungrammatical" to refer to Christ as "she" or "it", but you can use either of these for the other two aspects of the Christian "divine trinity".

Having said that, given Christianity is a patriarchal religion, I think it would be safest not to use "she" unless you're looking to start arguments.

  • Thanks for answering the question in context, but in general are there any times not using pronouns would just be unacceptable, the way sometime using numerals instead of writing out the numbers would be unacceptable? Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 18:25
  • @P. Alan Phillip Turner: Not that I'm aware. And I don't see how you could discuss the elements of the Christian Trinity for more than a couple of sentences without using pronouns. Do you have some problem with this, other than uncertainty about when to use "it" and when to use "he"? I assume christianity.se isn't getting bogged down with people wanting to use "she". Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 20:30
  • this is in response to a pre-emptive meta question that I didn't know the grammatical answer to. We've only had one case of a guy who wanted to use some funky pronouns. The question was more in regard to referring to the Holy Spirit as It instead of He. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 20:35
  • @P. Alan Phillip Turner: Well, as I said, I think there's a certain amount of choice available. I don't see anything odd about "It", except I wouldn't capitalise it. Perhaps my position there is influenced by me not being a Christian, but I don't see that would preclude me from writing about the Trinity if I wanted to. Using whatever words seemed okay to me, and always assuming I wasn't intending to be gratuitously offensive. Anyway, I don't think there are any "grammatical rules" in play here. Commented Sep 20, 2011 at 1:39

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