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I would like to treat a user as a non-gender noun and refer to it with the gender-neutral pronoun, it. E.g.,

The user defines two variables, x and y. It then multiplies each variable by a prime number.

However, on Wikipedia I found this:

The word "it", however, has an extremely impersonal connotation, even offensive, in common usage and is rarely used in English to refer to an unspecified human being or person of unknown gender. This is because the word "it" connotes that the person being specified is inferior to a person or is an object.

Is to appropriate to refer to a person of unknown sex as it?

Should I rephrase my sentence as follows:

The user defines two variables, x and y. The user then multiplies each variable by a prime number.

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5 Answers 5

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It is pejorative with reference to living beings, esp. social beings. It refers to an inanimate object.

Stay with the user throughout, for consistency, for political correctness and for consideration towards the reader.

Next, rephrase sentences to circumvent the issue of direct reference:

The user defines two variables, x and y, and then multiplies each variable by a prime number.

should do.

True, earlier some people used to refer to a newborn as it, but that is out of ignorance of the niceties. Never done in formal writing.

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I'm afraid it would be wrong. You should never use it to refer to people, except perhaps when the word you are referring to is child and its sex unknown. You are not alone: on this website there are probably a hundred questions about which pronoun should be used for a person of unknown sex.

  • The traditional neutral pronoun for a person is he, his, him: "The user does x. Then he throws his mouse out of the window."
  • Others now use they, their, them instead: "The user does x. Then they throw their mouse(/mice?) out of the window."

Both forms are probably acceptable to most people. Some find using they confusing/ugly because it is plural. Sometimes people use she as a compromise; but this is still rare. The choice is yours.

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    I've met a single individual who preferred at the time I knew it to be referred to as it. I think this is the one exception for the never use it to refer to people, rather than the example you've used here.
    – Ed Grimm
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 1:38
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    Ed, that's not an exception to the rule… that's an example of a strange opinion Commented May 13, 2020 at 21:18
  • @RobbieGoodwin Well, it is an exception, but it's the one that proves the rule!
    – No Name
    Commented May 18, 2023 at 23:13
  • No Name so sorry and that's so far from being true, it suggests you're at best unsure what 'an exception that proves a rule' means. Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 23:27
  • @RobbieGoodwin: Now, now, don't comment on the interlocutor, only on the arguments. Commented Jun 12, 2023 at 0:05
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Contrary to the claims that one never uses it to refer to humans, we in fact do so regularly when announcing someone: "Who's calling?" "It's Joe."

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    That it is a different kind of animal -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dummy_pronoun
    – Kris
    Commented Nov 19, 2017 at 11:09
  • Excellent, Brett… and I no longer think that's an odd instance. Don't we also find 'It is/was/will be (some kind of person) who (something)…' as search engines should respond to 'It was a brave man who first…' with Swift's '… ate an oyster' and to 'It is a sad man…' with Springsteen's '… , My Friend, who's livin' in his own skin…' and try also 'It was a man'… Commented Jul 21, 2023 at 21:48
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I think it has already been well established that you cannot use 'it' to describe a person. However, I also think it is very important that you know that one does not use the word 'he' in a situation that could involve a male or a female subject. Gender neutral language is now considered correct usage in universities and academia.

You could say 'he/she' but as someone pointed out above 'they' is the preferable option. It's like we often use 'their' for possession when we cannot say 'his' or 'her' since we don't know the gender of the possessor, e.g. 'The child wanted to by a lollypop but was disappointed as their favourite flavour was sold out'. In your example, use the third person plural pronoun 'they' and you can't go wrong.

Somebody above mentioned that the need for gender neutral language is nonsense to them. It is actually very important and regardless of your stance on the matter it is now considered correct and gender-specific language (usually masculine), such as 'he', (when referring to a someone of an unidentified gender) is frowned upon and considered outdated and incorrect. In this day and age, using gender specific language almost looks uneducated or in extreme cases - sexist.

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  • Notice that I just said in my comment above, 'Somebody aboved mentioned that the need for gender neutral language is nonsense to them.' I used the word 'them' rather than 'it' even though I am only speaking about one individual (whose gender I don't know).
    – Rachel
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 5:39
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    What 'universities and academia consider correct usage' is, fortunately, not determinative. And if you use the third person plural pronoun for a singular subject, you have immediately gone wrong, no matter how noble your intentions. Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 14:07
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    Actually, they third person plural pronoun can be used for a singular subject. How do we know this? Because we see it happening all the time. There is no supreme authority on the English language and, in my opinion, we need to sometimes look beyond the traditional rules and see how the word is actually being used today.
    – Rachel
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 16:36
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    dailywritingtips.com/… 'the singular they is widely accepted in written British English, and it is well documented in the works of many great writers, including Auden, Austen, Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, Shaw, Thackeray, and Trollope. It was the singular pronoun of choice in English for hundreds of years before, in 1745, an otherwise-reasonable grammarian named Anne Fisher — yes, a woman — became possibly the first person to champion he as the universal pronoun of choice.'
    – Rachel
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 16:40
  • and finally from the same site as above - 'According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.” Meanwhile, R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, predict the inevitable dominance of the singular they.' So I'm sorry TimLymington I think this is a matter of debate and your comment reflects one side, it is not a definite rule.
    – Rachel
    Commented Feb 3, 2012 at 16:41
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English today lacks a unanimously agreed-upon gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun; I use they, which has been used throughout the history of the language, though may be regarded as incorrect in modern usage.

At any rate, they is significantly less incorrect when referring to things that have a gender than it, except in satirical usage, as in "I think it wants food."

I have seen at one point the construct xe, or with an italicized x, as xe; a few times, I have seen an alternation between he and she used between paragraphs. I dislike these usages, as they are generally nonstandard and can be confusing.

See: http://xkcd.com/145/

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    In some communities, gender-neutral pronouns are the norm. They have an advantage over he/she and similar, in that they don't reinforce the gender binary. (Yes, I hang out with trans and genderqueer people, and straight cis people who nonetheless user gender-neutral pronouns to refer to their friends and family.)
    – TRiG
    Commented Apr 25, 2012 at 19:29
  • Again, TRiG, which communities are you thinking of? Isn't 11 years long enough to have formulated a suitable explanation? Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 19:09
  • Tortoise, do you not believe the reason English today lacks a unanimously agreed-upon gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is that English does not now and never before had any need for such a contrivance? If 'they' has been used throughout the history of the language, how could it be 'incorrect in modern usage'? When did 'modern usage' start? How far back is your 'throughout the history of the language'? Obviously, many more than 500 years but how far, roughly? 1,000 years? 2,000? In your own terms, how far back is 'throughout the history of the language'? Commented Jun 19, 2023 at 22:28

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