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A gender-neutral pronoun is a pronoun that is not associated with a binary gender. It designates two distinct grammatical phenomena, the first being pronouns that have been assigned gender-neutral meanings in modern times out of a concern for gender equity, and the second being genderless pronouns that occur naturally. Most languages of the world do not have gender distinctions in personal pronouns, and in some, such as many of Niger–Congo languages, gender is not based on sex.
In many languages – notably most Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages – third-person personal pronouns intrinsically distinguish male from female; the selection of a pronoun necessarily specifies the sex of the person referred to. In Europe, the masculine form has been taken to be the default form, that is, the form to be used unless it is known to be inappropriate. In English, this has dictated the masculine pronoun in cases such as
- reference to an indefinite person, for example: "If anybody comes, tell him"
- reference to a group containing men and women, for example French: Vos amis sont arrivés — ils étaient en avance. ("Your friends have arrived — they were early") uses the French masculine plural pronoun ils instead of the feminine elles.
The majority of the world's languages do not have grammatical sex-based gender in their pronouns. Examples are Austronesian languages, many East Asian languages, and the Uralic languages. This article will focus on remedies found in languages with gendered pronouns.
Middle English 
Historically, there were two gender neutral pronouns native to English dialects, "ou" and "a", but they have long since died out. According to Dennis Baron's Grammar and Gender:
In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular "ou": "'Ou will' expresses either he will, she will, or it will." Marshall traces "ou" to Middle English epicene "a", used by the 14th century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright's English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of "a" for he, she, it, they, and even I. This "a" is a reduced form of the Anglo-Saxon he = "he" and heo = "she"
Baron goes on to describe how relics of these sex-neutral terms survive in some British dialects of Modern English (for example "hoo" for "she", in Yorkshire), and sometimes a pronoun of one gender might be applied to a person or animal of the opposite gender.
Modern English 
Whereas he and she are used for entities treated as persons (including supernatural beings and, sometimes, "higher" animals, especially pets), the pronoun it is normally used for entities not regarded as persons, though the use of he or she is optional for animals of known sex. Quirk et al. give the following example, illustrating use of both it and her to refer to a bird:
- "The robin builds its nest in a well-chosen position . . . and, after the eggs have hatched, the mother bird feeds her young there for several weeks."
The pronoun it can also be used of children in some circumstances, for instance when the sex is indefinite or when the writer has no emotional connection to the child, as in a scientific context. Quirk et al. give the following example:
- "A child learns to speak the language of its environment."
According to The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, it is sometimes the "obvious" choice for children. Examples given include
- "To society, a baby's sex is second in importance to its health."
but also the more colloquial
- "When the new baby comes, it's going to sleep in Lil's room."
It is also used in other circumstances where gender and sex are not an issue.
Legal controversy 
Governments, clubs, and other groups have interpreted sentences like "every member must take off his shoes before entering the chapel" to mean that therefore female members may not enter the chapel. The Persons Case, the legal battle over whether Canadian women counted as legal persons eligible to sit in the Senate, partially turned on such a point.
By contrast, the Constitution of Ireland describes the President of Ireland throughout as "he", yet two of the most recent presidents were women; in 1997, four of the five candidates in the election were women. Efforts in a court case to argue that "he" excluded women were dismissed by the Irish Supreme Court, which ruled the term "gender-neutral". (The Constitution's primary version is in Irish, where the male pronoun sé is considered gender-neutral.)
Historical gender-neutral pronouns 
Universal "he" 
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (January 2012)|
The use of "he" to refer to a person of unknown gender was prescribed by manuals of style and school textbooks from the early 18th century until around the 1960s, an early example of which is Anne Fisher's 1745 grammar book "A New Grammar". Older editions of Fowler also took this view.
- The customer brought his purchases to the cashier for checkout.
- In a supermarket, anyone can buy anything he needs.
- When a customer argues, always agree with him.
This may be compared to usage of the word man to humans in general.
- "All men are created equal."
- "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
- "Man cannot live by bread alone."
Gender-specific pronouns were also prescribed when one might presume that most members of some group are the same gender (although in recent times, such presumptions are seen as offensive).
- A secretary should keep her temper in check.
- A janitor should respect and listen to his employers.
- Every plumber has his own tools.
- A nurse must always be kind to her patients.
While the use, in formal English, of "he", "him" or "his" as a gender-neutral pronoun has traditionally been considered grammatically correct, such use can also be considered to be a violation of gender agreement, as well as being prejudicial and, sometimes, confusing or absurd. Some authors though, turn the convention of the "universal he" upon its head and instead use "she" as referring to a subject of unknown gender. The use of the 'universal she' is also common in contemporary English-speaking Philosophy.
Singular "they" 
Since at least the 15th century, "they" (though, as with singular "you", used with verbs conjugated in the plural, not the singular), "them", "themself", "themselves", and "their" have been used, in an increasingly accepted fashion, as singular pronouns. This usage of the word "they" is often thus called the singular "they". The singular "they" is widely used and accepted in Britain, Australia, and North America in conversation. At least one style guide has, in the past, advised against this use.
- I say to each person in this room: may they enjoy themselves tonight!
- Anyone who arrives at the door can let themself in using this key.
- Eche of theym sholde ... make theymselfe redy. — Caxton, Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489)
In modern colloquial speech, sometimes "they" is used even when the gender of the subject is obvious; "they" implies a generic (or representative of type class) rather than individuated interpretation:
- If some guy beat me up, then I'd leave them.
- Every bride hopes that their wedding day will go as planned.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (January 2012)|
Some sentences can be rephrased to use the impersonal pronoun "one". However, in most informal contexts this usage of "one" is becoming increasingly uncommon, and being replaced by an impersonal usage of "you". Compare:
- Each student should save his questions until the end.
- One should save one's questions until the end.
- You should save your questions until the end.
Modern gender-neutral pronouns 
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It is contended that none of the traditional options is completely satisfactory. The universal grammatically correct "he", in particular, has been a source of controversy. The 19th and 20th centuries saw an upsurge in consciousness and advocacy of gender equity. In that context, the traditional use of the universal "he" appears biased toward men and against women. Other suggestions have therefore been introduced.
The periphrastics "he or she", "him or her", "his or her", "his or hers", "himself or herself" are seen by some as resolving the problem, though they are cumbersome. They can be abbreviated in writing as "he/she", "(s)he", "s/he", "him/her", "his/her", "himself/herself", but when spoken have no accepted abbreviation. With the exception of "(s)he" and "s/he", one still has the choice of which pronoun to place first.
Authors sometimes employ rubrics for selecting "she" or "he" such as
- Use the gender of the primary author.
- Alternate between "she" and "he".
- Alternate by paragraph or chapter.
- Using "he" and "she" to make distinctions between two groups of people.
Invented pronouns 
Some groups and individuals have invented and used non-standard pronouns, hoping they will become standard. Various proposals for such changes have been around since at least the 19th century. For example, abbreviated pronouns have been proposed: 'e (for he or she) or 's (for his/hers); h' (for him/her in object case); "zhe" (also "ze"), "zher(s)" (also "zer" or "zir"), "shi"/"hir", and "zhim" (also "mer") for "he or she", "his or her(s)", and "him or her", respectively; 'self (for himself/herself); and hu, hus, hum, humself (for s/he, his/hers, him/her, himself/herself). The American Heritage Book of English Usage says of these efforts:
Like most efforts at language reform, these well-intended suggestions have been largely ignored by the general English-speaking public, and the project to supplement the English pronoun system has proved to be an ongoing exercise in futility. Pronouns are one of the most basic components of a language, and most speakers appear to have little interest in adopting invented ones. This may be because in most situations people can get by using the plural pronoun they or using other constructions that combine existing pronouns, such as he/she or "he or she".
According to Dennis Baron, the neologism that received the greatest partial mainstream acceptance was Charles Crozat Converse's 1884 proposal of thon, a contraction of "that one" (other sources date its coinage to 1858 or 1859):
Thon was picked up by Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary in 1898, and was listed there as recently as 1964. It was also included in Webster's Second New International Dictionary, though it is absent from the first and third, and it still has its supporters today.
"Co" was coined by feminist writer Mary Orovan in 1970. "Co" is in common usage in intentional communities of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, and "Co" appears in the bylaws of several of these communities. In addition to use when the gender of the antecedent is unknown or indeterminate, some use it as gender-blind language and always replace gender-specific pronouns.
The pronoun "phe" was coined at Brown University and is now used by The Female Sexuality Workshop at the University.
The following table summarizes the foregoing approaches.
|Nominative (subject)||Oblique (object)||Possessive determiner||Possessive pronoun||Reflexive|
|He||He laughed||I called him||His eyes gleam||That is his||He likes himself|
|She||She laughed||I called her||Her eyes gleam||That is hers||She likes herself|
|One||One laughed||I called one||One's eyes gleam||That is one's||One likes oneself|
|Conventions based on traditional pronouns|
|She/he||She/he laughed||I called him/her||His/her eyes gleam||That is his/hers||She/he likes him/herself|
|S/he (compact)||S/he laughed||I called him/r||His/r eyes gleam||That is his/rs||S/he likes him/rself|
|Singular they||They laughed||I called them||Their eyes gleam||That is theirs||They like themself|
|Spivak (old)||E laughed||I called em||Eir eyes gleam||That is eirs||E likes eirself|
|Spivak (new)||Ey laughed||I called em||Eir eyes gleam||That is eirs||Ey likes emself|
|Humanist||Hu laughed||I called hum||Hus eyes gleam||That is hus||Hu likes humself|
|Per||Per laughed||I called per||Per eyes gleam||That is pers||Per likes perself|
|Thon||Thon laughed||I called thon||Thons eyes gleam||That is thons||Thon likes thonself|
|Jee, Jeir, Jem||Jee laughed||I called jem||Jeir eyes gleam||That is jeirs||Jee likes jemself|
|Ve||Ve laughed||I called ver||Vis eyes gleam||That is vis||Ve likes verself|
|Xe||Xe laughed||I called xem||Xyr eyes gleam||That is xyrs||Xe likes xemself|
|Ze (or zie or sie) and zir||Ze laughed||I called zir/zem||Zir/Zes eyes gleam||That is zirs/zes||Ze likes zirself|
|Ze (or zie or sie) and hir||Ze laughed||I called hir||Hir eyes gleam||That is hirs||Ze likes hirself|
|Ze and mer||Ze laughed||I called mer||Zer eyes gleam||That is zers||Ze likes zemself|
|Zhe, Zher, Zhim||Zhe laughed||I called zhim||Zher eyes gleam||That is zhers||Zhe likes zhimself|
Many of these newly-coined pronouns are also used by members of the transgender community, particularly those who consider themselves to be of non-binary gender. Some of these individuals strongly advocate the use of singular they for the situations in which gender-neutral pronouns are traditionally used (when the referent could be of any gender), maintaining that these alternate pronouns do have connotations of non-binary gender.
Esperanto has no official gender-neutral pronouns, but there are several unofficial proposals – see the article for details.
Romance languages 
The choice of possessive pronoun in many Romance languages is determined by the grammatical gender of the possessed object; the gender of the possessor is not explicit. For instance, in French the possessive pronouns are usually sa for a feminine object, and son for a masculine object: son livre can mean either "his book" or "her book"; the masculine son is used because livre is masculine. Similarly, sa maison means either "his house" or "her house" because "maison" is feminine. Non-possessive pronouns, on the other hand, are usually gender-specific.
As in French, Portuguese and Catalan also determine the gender of object but not of the possessor, by possessive pronouns. Seu stands for a masculine object in both languages (o seu livro/el seu llibre), while Portuguese uses sua and Catalan seva, seua or sa for feminine ones (a sua mansão/la seva mansió). In some Brazilian sociolects and in rapid speech in all of its dialects, the ⟨u⟩ in sua may be completely elided, making pairs where Brazilian Portuguese and Catalan terms do not differ significantly in pronunciation and meaning.
In contrast, Spanish possessive pronouns agree neither with the gender of the possessor nor with that of the possession. In the third person, the possessive pronoun su (or sus for plural - number agrees with the possession) is used. Example: Su libro could mean either "his book" or "her book", with the gender of the possessor being made clear from the context of the statement. Pronouns for referring to people in Spanish have gender - él for "him" and ella for "her", there is also the gender neutral lo for "it". Spanish pronouns are usually part of the verb and are only used separately when making a distinction. e.g. The verb vivir - "to live" would usually be conjugated in the third person as vive - "He/she lives". To make a distinction one might say "ella vive en Madrid pero él vive en Barcelona" - "She lives in Madrid but he lives in Barcelona".
Italian also behaves like French, with phrases such as il mio/tuo/suo libro not implying anything about the owner's sex or the owner's name's grammatical gender. In the third person, if the "owner's" sex or category (person vs thing) is an issue, it is solved by expressing di lui, di lei for persons or superior animals or di esso for things or inferior animals. Lui scese e portò su le valigie di lei (He went downstairs and brought her luggage upstairs). This rarely happens, though, because it is considered inelegant and the owner's gender can often be inferred from the context, which is anyhow much more important in an Italian environment than in an English-speaking one.
Written Chinese has gone in the opposite direction, from non-gendered to gendered pronouns, though this hasn't affected the spoken language.
In spoken standard Mandarin, there is no gender distinction in personal pronouns: the pronoun tā (他) can mean "he", "she", "ze", or "it". However, when the antecedent of the spoken pronoun tā is unclear, native speakers will assume it is a male person. In 1917, the Old Chinese graph tā (她, from nǚ 女, "woman") was borrowed into the written language to specifically represent "she" by Liu Bannong. As a result, the old character tā (他), which previously also meant "she" in written texts, is sometimes restricted to meaning "he" only. In contrast to most Chinese characters coined to represent specifically male concepts, the character tā is formed with the ungendered character for person rén (人), rather than the character for male nán (男)."
The creation of gendered pronouns in Chinese was part of the May Fourth Movement to modernize Chinese culture, and specifically an attempt to assert sameness between Chinese and the European languages, which generally have gendered pronouns. Of all the contemporary neologisms from the period, the only ones to remain in common use are tā (它) for objects, tā (牠, from niú 牛, "cow") for animals, and tā (祂 from shì 示, "revelation") for gods. Although Liu and other writers tried to popularize a different pronunciation for the feminine tā, including yi from the Wu dialect and tuo from a literary reading, these efforts failed, and all forms of the pronoun tā retain identical pronunciation. This identical pronunciation of the split characters holds true not only for Mandarin but also for many of the varieties of Chinese. There is a recent trend on the Internet for people to write "TA" in Latin script, derived from the pinyin romanization of Chinese, as a gender-neutral pronoun.
The Cantonese third person singular pronoun is keui5 (佢), and it may refer to people of either gender. For a specifically female pronoun, some writers replace the person radical rén (亻) with the female radical nǚ (女), forming the character keui5 (姖). However, this analogous variation to tā is neither widely accepted in standard written Cantonese nor is it grammatically or semantically required. Moreover, while the character keui5 (佢) has no meaning in classical Chinese, the character keui5 (姖) has a separate meaning unrelated to its dialectic use in standard or classical Chinese.
See also 
- Gender-neutral language
- Gender neutrality in English
- Gender-neutrality in genderless languages
- Gender-neutrality in languages with grammatical gender
- Grammatical gender
- Singular they
- Spivak pronoun
- Corbett, Greville G. (2011). "Sex-based and Non-sex-based Gender Systems". In Dryer; Haspelmath, Martin. The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library. Retrieved 2013-04-27.
- Williams, John (1990s). "History — Modern Neologism". Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ. Retrieved 2007-01-01.
- Siewierska, Anna; Gender Distinctions in Independent Personal Pronouns; in Haspelmath, Martin; Dryer, Matthew S.; Gil, David; Comrie, Bernard (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures, pp. 182–185. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-19-925591-1
- Baron, Dennis (1986). Grammar and Gender. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-03526-8. as cited by: Williams, John (1990s). "History - Native-English GNPs". Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ. Retrieved 2007-01-01.
- Quirk, Randolph; Greenbaum, Sidney; Leech, Geoffrey; Svartvik, Jan (1985). A comprehensive grammar of the English language. Harlow: Longman. pp. 316–317, 342. ISBN 978-0-582-51734-9.
- Miller, Casey; Swift, Kate (1995) . Mosse, Kate, ed. The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing (3rd British ed.). London: The Women's Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-7043-4442-4.
- "Alberta's Famous Five named honorary senators." The Globe and Mail, October 11, 2009.
- Patricia T. O'Conner; Stewart Kellerman (July 21, 2009). "All-Purpose Pronoun". The New York Times.
- Fowler, H.W. (2009) . A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Original 1926 edition with an introduction and notes by David Crystal. Oxford University Press. pp. 648–649. ISBN 978-0-19-958589-2.
- Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 492. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
- Miller, Casey; Swift, Kate (1995) . Mosse, Kate, ed. The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing (3rd British ed.). London: The Women's Press. pp. 46–48. ISBN 0-7043-4442-4.
- Strunk, William Jr.; White, E.B. (1979) . The Elements of Style (3rd ed.). Allyn and Bacon. pp. 60–61. ISBN 0-205-19158-4.
- Michael Newman (1996) Epicene pronouns: The linguistics of a prescriptive problem; Newman (1997) "What can pronouns tell us? A case study of English epicenes", Studies in language 22:2, 353–389.
- Mignon Fogarty. "Grammar Girl / Yo as a Pronoun.".
- "5.4, Gender: Sexist Language and Assumptions — epicene pronouns". The American Heritage Book of English Usage. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1996. ISBN 0-395-76785-7.
- Writing about literature: essay and translation skills for university, p. 90, Judith Woolf, Routledge, 2005
- Baron, Dennis (1986). "10, The Word That Failed". Grammar and Gender. Yale University Press. p. 201. ISBN 0-300-03883-6.
- Baron, Dennis. "The Epicene Pronouns". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
- Kingdon, Jim. "Gender-free Pronouns in English". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
- "Skyhouse Community – Bylaws". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
- "Bylaws – Sandhill – 1982". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
- "Bylaws – East Wind – 1974". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
- "Bylaws – Twin Oaks". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
- "Visitor Guide – Twin Oaks Community: What does all this stuff mean?". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
- Williams, John. "Technical - Declension of the Major Gender-Neutral Pronouns". Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ
- Used in several college humanities texts published by Bandanna Books. Originated by editor Sasha Newborn in 1982.
- MediaMOO's "person" gender, derived from Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1979), in which people of 2137 use "per" as their sole third-person pronoun.
- proposed in 1884 by American lawyer Charles Crozat Converse. Reference: "Epicene". The Mavens' Word of the Day. Random House. 1998-08-12. Retrieved 2006-12-20.
- Jayce's Gender-Neutral Pronouns
- Proposed by New Zealand writer Keri Hulme some time in the 1980s. Also used by writer Greg Egan for non-gendered artificial intelligences and "asex" humans.
Egan, Greg (July 1998). Diaspora. Gollancz. ISBN 0-7528-0925-3.
Egan, Greg. Distress. ISBN 1-85799-484-1.
- A discussion about theory of Mind: a paper from 2000 that uses and defines these pronouns
- Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ
Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook. ISBN 0-415-91673-9.
- Creel, Richard (1997). "Ze, Zer, Mer". APA Newsletters. The American Philosophical Association. Retrieved 2006-05-15.
- Foldvary, Fred (2000). "Zhe, Zher, Zhim". The Progress Report. Economic Justice Network. Retrieved 01-05 2010.
- Ettner, Charles (2001). "In Chinese, men and women are equal - or - women and men are equal?". In Hellinger, Maris; Bussmann, Hadumod. Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men 1. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 36.
- Liu, Lydia (1995). Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity--China, 1900-1937. Stanford University Press. pp. 36–38.
- Victor Mair (2013), "He / she / it / none of the above," Language Log, April 19, 2013.
- "Chinese Character Database: Phonologically Disambiguated According to the Cantonese Dialect". Chinese University of Hong Kong. 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-16. The entry for "佢" (Humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk) notes its use as a third-person pronoun in Cantonese, but the entry for "姖" (Humanum.arts.cuhk.edu.hk) does not; it only gives the pronunciation geoi6 and notes that it is used in place names.
- Gender-Neutral Pronouns, a style guide
- Gender Neutral Pronoun Frequently Asked Questions
- Gender-free Legal Writing
- The Epicene Pronouns: A Chronology of the Word That Failed (link updated 5-31-06)
- Footnotes: pronouns
- On the Creation of "She " in Japanese
- Regender can translate webpages to use gender-neutral pronouns.
- Is there a gender-neutral substitute for "his or her"?
- Grammar Girl, Quick and Dirty tips for Better Writing / Yo as Pronoun.
- The dictionary definition of Appendix:English third-person singular pronouns at Wiktionary