There are a number of questions here on gender neutral pronouns, and one of the things that always comes up is that "it" should never be used to refer to a person (usually an adult). The general reasoning for this rule is that "it" is used to refer to animals (in some cases), and inanimate objects. Basically, it's considered dehumanizing.

What I haven't seen, though, is an explanation for why it's considered dehumanizing (other than the circular logic that it's only used for non-human subjects).

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    Hi! It is me. I'm a human being. Or am I? – coleopterist Nov 2 '12 at 18:29
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    Oh, right! It's you, @coleopterist! Do you feel "dehumanised"? – FumbleFingers Nov 2 '12 at 18:30
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    @coleopterist but that's the dummy it. – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Nov 2 '12 at 18:31
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    @cornbreadninja Who are you calling a dummy? – Zairja Nov 2 '12 at 18:48
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    @Zairja it, of course. – cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Nov 2 '12 at 18:52

Old English was highly inflected and the third person singular personal pronoun had masculine, feminine and neuter forms. The neuter form was, in the nominative, hit, which became modern English it. English grammatical gender has disappeared, but we retain he and she to refer to nouns which clearly describe male and female entities, mostly people. The neuter it refers to everything else.


The fact that it is not used for humans is why its use on humans is dehumanizing. We don't refer to those odd-shaped things at the ends of your arms as "paws"; if I call them "paws" I am connoting "animal" instead of "human". The long history of it reinforces it. Also, we have pronouns for humans. So using a non-human pronoun for a human must imply something, right? Otherwise, why not just use the human pronoun?

The original choice of words may be arbitrary. The fact that the original speakers distinguished between humans and non-humans may be a relic of culture or random chance. But the centuries of usage reinforce the meanings. It is a feedback-loop. Children learn not to use the language a certain (arbitrary) way and that learning becomes entrenched. The connotations become a feature of the language because of continuous reinforcement. Then, when someone violates the convention, it draws attention to itself.

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    Circular logic is circular! – Shauna Nov 2 '12 at 18:57
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    @Shauna: exactly. For many seemingly arbitrary alternatives in language, the reason, the answer to why, can only be 'because that's the way it is'. One can always ask how it got that way, or what is the phenomenon exactly, but the why question almost always presupposes some sentient designer of the process, when there hardly ever is. – Mitch Nov 2 '12 at 19:55
  • @Mitch - Since when does asking why presuppose a sentient designer? If someone asked you "why is the sky blue?", what would you answer? According to your comment, it would presuppose that "because $deity made it that way" would be the answer (sentient designer), instead of something along the lines of "because the sun's rays are refracted by the earth's atmosphere" (non-designed phenomenon). – Shauna Nov 2 '12 at 20:09
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    @Shauna: It isn't circular logic. It's a feedback loop. At one point, people just grunted and waved their arms. Eventually they formed words and started using some words to mean some things, other words to mean other things. As this usage becomes entrenched, the connotations develop. As the connotations develop, they reinforce the usage. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Nov 2 '12 at 20:21
  • @Shauna That's a fair assessment, but I posit that all "why" questions must ultimately be tautological. For at least two thousand years there has existed the idea of a Chain of Being. At the top is the deity, further down are humans, and below us are the animals. This idea is reflected in language, but, as with any "strange loop", the language reinforces the idea. It's like a positive feedback loop. One may study how language and culture evolve and why some elements are carried on, but how productive or answerable is a question like "Why is the Northern cities vowel shift occurring?" – Zairja Nov 2 '12 at 20:25

At some point people decided that humans should be referred to as "he" and "she" and inanimate objects as "it". I don't know exactly who made that decision and when, or if there is anyone who does. Whether some committee was convened to decide on proper pronoun usage (which I doubt), or whether it shook out over a period of time, is irrelevant. The decision was made. From that point on, referring to another human as "it" implied that you do not consider them a person.

This is not really "circular logic", but rather a matter of applying definitions. Like, why is this website called "english.stackexchange"? It's because someone made up that name. You could say it's circular logic in a sense, "It's called english.stackexchange because that's what it's called". But really, someone makes up a name, then that's what the thing is called. It's not that mysterious a process.

Okay, really I'm oversimplifying when discussing English pronouns. There were plenty of languages around before English was invented that had pronouns, and many (most? all?) of them had masculine, feminine, and neuter. This is an idea that has been around since the beginning of recorded history. The biggest difference between English and other languages is that only apply "he" or "she" to inanimate objects in very rare cases, while other languages attach gender to all sorts of things.


Perhaps it would be better if we labelled it a 'pertaining-to-things-where-the-concept-of-gender-doesn't-apply' pronoun rather than a 'gender-neutral' pronoun. It certainly doesn't connote indeterminate gender, but rather lack of gender. We don't have a 'gender-indeterminate' pronoun, and it's not constructive to force an unwarranted definition onto 'gender-neutral'.

Humans cannot be considered to fall within a set 'pertaining-to-things-where-the-concept-of-gender-doesn't-apply', but rather (sometimes) within a set 'pertaining-to-things-where-the-concept-of-gender-does-apply-but-is-not-relevant-to-the-present-discourse'.

  • Or "the gender of the subject may or may not be relevant but is unknown". As many have said in many contexts, it would be nice if there was a pronoun in English to refer to a person of unknown or irrelevant gender. But there isn't, so we continue to struggle with using "they" as a singular pronoun, rewording sentences to avoid the need for a pronoun, etc. – Jay Nov 12 '12 at 17:00

Because 'it' refers to a thing, not a person. To use it applied to a person is to suggest that they are not a person, but a thing, in the same way that when talking about a person using 'she' implies the person is female.

Of course this has cultural and contextual nuances, some people would not see it as de-humanising, and parents may refer to an unborn child as 'it' having chosen not to know its gender until birth, etc


Since he and she are also available, the use of it implies "neither male or female".

  • That's my point. "It" is a gender-neutral pronoun, but because "it" is considered dehumanizing, we end up jumping through hoops to come up with an "appropriate" one, and end up with such things as singular they, a slew of "made-up" words, or awkward things like "s/he", "him/her", or "his or hers." – Shauna Nov 2 '12 at 18:54
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    Note that some transgender folk prefer the use of it, perhaps similar to homosexuals embracing queer. – Zairja Nov 2 '12 at 20:18
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    @Shauna -- "It" is not a gender-neutral pronoun, it's a neuter pronoun; the word implies the referent has no gender. – Malvolio Nov 2 '12 at 23:46
  • @Malvolio - Then why are animals and infants sometimes/often referred to as "it"? – Shauna Nov 2 '12 at 23:55
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    @Zairja That's in the general category of the use of "it" as the subject of sentences with a predicate nominative, even when discussing a person. If someone asks, "Who was on the phone?", we answer, "It was Fred", not "He was Fred". Etc. – Jay Nov 12 '12 at 17:08

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