What is the Proper Way to Address Gendered Pronouns When Writing in English?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Political correctness in language has led to some significant discussion of how to handle gendered pronouns. These include he, she, him, her, herself, and himself. Some people object to using one pronoun especially when the gender of any person referred to is unknown. It used to be fairly typical to use masculine forms of pronouns to refer to all, but an uprising in attempting to be fair has led to extraordinary variation on how to handle this topic so as not to offend.

Some writers of feminist literature use gendered pronouns that are always feminine when referring to both genders.
Some writers of feminist literature use gendered pronouns that are always feminine when referring to both genders.

Some suggest that he and she, and other gendered pronouns should be used interchangeably in a group of sentences to avoid not including both genders. An example might be: A writer must know his pronouns. She is lost without them. A writer can’t get along without using pronouns constantly, and he needs to know how to use them correctly.

There are objections to this interchange, since it seems like the sentences above can be talking about several people of different genders, and the gendered pronouns used can engender confusion and lack of clarity. Some people have started substituting they, theirs, their, and them, even though these are plural pronouns. You can change the sentence with these non-gendered pronouns by not using a singular subject to begin with. Note the change from the example sentences above: Writers must know their pronouns. They are lost without them. Writers can’t get long without using pronouns constantly and they need to know how to use them correctly.

Others use single subjects and replace them with plural pronouns, which is not recommended if you would like to please an English instructor, or they use “he/she,” and “him/her” instead. Another way around referring specifically to gender is to use the subject “one.” But many find this very formal. Alternately, you could change the pronouns in the first example above to variants of the pronoun “you” which is not gendered. Some writers find this tactic too informal, but it does avoid seeming prejudiced against a single gender.

You will find that some writers of feminist literature use gendered pronouns that are always feminine when referring to both genders. Others have proposed new pronouns to be used that are not gendered at all. You’ll see these on a number of Internet sites. They include words like “em,” “e,” “ey,” “zir” and “hir.” Some of these are gendered pronouns in other languages. “Sie” is the German form of “She,” so it’s not clear if you have a passing acquaintance with German that this is not a gendered pronoun.

Some people highly object to discarding gendered pronouns in favor of gender-neutral pronouns of new invention. They argue that political correctness in language can simply go too far, and having to substitute new words to achieve this is no appropriate solution. However, if you evaluate language from a historical perspective, you will find that male gendered pronouns are in much greater use than their female counterparts. This may imply a sort of discrimination that writers want to avoid.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


I am also facing the same dilemma on my blog. I don't know what gender-specific pronoun when I am referring to either of both sexes. I just presume always that the masculine ones are used to generalize both. For example:

"If you are one among the many who had experienced painful breakups, you should realize that aside from talking to your love partner, there's nothing much you can do if your partner has fallen out of love even if it seems to (him) that what he's doing is wrong."

So what if your partner is a she? I target the article to be applicable to both genders. I'm a little lost in this. English is such a complex language having more exceptions than the rules. How I hope the world will switch to a language that is more consistent, how about Interlingua? -Wilson


This is an area that drives me crazy. I work for a huge international bank, and I regularly see statements such as "The customer has their account" in our corporate communications, and it's atrocious English.

Pronouns should agree with antecedent nouns in number, person, and gender, no exceptions. But people today are so ill-schooled that they can't perform the basic grammatical and punctuational tasks that I had mastered by the time I graduated from eighth grade.

It's common to see these errors:

1) Using plural pronouns to modify singular antecedent nouns (my pet peeve)

2) Not hyphenating compound words

3) Starting a paragraph in third person and changing to first person within the same paragraph or even the same sentence

4) Ignoring the proper use of commas, i.e., to separate dependent and independent clauses

5) Not capitalizing proper nouns, or alternately using capitalization and non-capitalization of the same noun in the same sentence or paragraph.

6) Using "I" as the object of a sentence, or "Me" or "her or him" as the subject of a sentence.

I could go on and on, but these are the worst offenders, and the sad thing is that the corporate proofreaders don't even know the difference!

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