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Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“his” versus “her” versus “their”)?
Is it appropriate to refer to a person of unknown sex by “it”?

If so, could anyone give an example pls?


It is almost never appropriate to use it for a person. Sometimes, we seem to use it when asking about somebody's gender. E.g.:

A: My wife's had a baby!

B: Is it a boy or a girl?

A: It's a boy!

but here it is just a dummy pronoun.

If you don't know the gender, you have the following options:

  1. Use an arbitray gender and stick to it (usually he).
  2. Use he / she.
  3. Use they. (This is the most "natural" way for native English speakers, although some consider it a little informal.)
  4. Use a descriptive noun. E.g. the customer.

Note that it is very offensive to refer to transexuals, transvestites, hermaphrodites, and so on as it. If the person adopts a male name, use he. If the person adopts a female name, use she.

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  • I see, thanks for the clear answer. What if I use "it" to something informal such as in the phrase: "Pry it." Would it be safe or appropriate to assume that the "it" could also mean an object, a place, or a person? – jilseego Feb 8 '12 at 3:00
  • You're welcome! :-) But I don't understand your "Pry it." question. – Pitarou Feb 8 '12 at 3:38
  • =) Pry means to examine carefully. I'd like to be able to convey that when I say "pry it", the "it" would mean anything. It's actually fancy name of a category in my blog where I can post anything that I'd like to examine but I am not sure if it's correct. – jilseego Feb 8 '12 at 3:55
  • Well, since it's a general category, "it" is fine, but I think "Pry" is wrong for two reasons. First, when this meaning of pry takes an object you need the word into. ("Pry into it") Second, when you pry into things, you are doing more than just examining closely: you are trying to find secrets. It has negative connotations. "Prying into" somebody's life is usually a bad thing. Check wordnik.com/words/pry for examples of sentences. I don't know exactly what you plan to do on your blog, but maybe "Analyze it" or "Examine it" would be better than "Pry into it". – Pitarou Feb 8 '12 at 9:50
  • Poor example, because in neither of the sentences does the it refer to the baby. Much rather, it's a dummy pronoun that doesn't depend on the rest of the sentence or the gender of the subject at hand. Compare: "There's a stranger in our backyard!" — "Is it a woman or a man?" — "It's a man." – RegDwigнt Feb 8 '12 at 12:09

Usually "it" refers to an object. A person is usually referred to by "he", "she", "him", "her", etc. A gender neutral way is to use "they" or "them, even for singles.


"John is dirty, it hasn't taken a bath in days."

"John is dirty, he hasn't taken a bath in days."

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  • 1
    "She was holding the baby, cradling it and smiling into its face." – kiamlaluno Feb 8 '12 at 7:24

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