Gender neutrality in languages with gendered third-person pronouns

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A third-person pronoun is a pronoun that refers to an entity other than the speaker or listener. [1] Some languages that do have gender-specific pronouns have them as part of a grammatical gender system, where all or the vast majority of nouns are assigned to gender classes and adjectives and other modifiers must agree with them in that. A few languages with gender-specific pronouns, such as English, Afrikaans, Defaka, Khmu, Malayalam, Tamil, and Yazgulyam, lack traditional grammatical gender and in such languages, gender usually adheres to "natural gender".[2]

Problems of usage may arise in languages like English which have pronominal gender systems, in contexts where a person of unspecified or unknown gender is being referred to but commonly available pronouns (he or she) are gender-specific. In such cases a gender-specific, usually masculine, pronoun is sometimes used with an intended gender-neutral meaning;[3] such use of he was common in formal English between the 1700s and the latter half of the 20th century (though some regard it as outmoded[4] or sexist[5]). Use of singular they is another common alternative dating from the 1300s, but proscribed by some.[6]

Pronouns such as who and which are not discussed here, though similar but different consideration may apply to them.

Some languages which historically did not have gendered pronouns have introduced them to translated Western literature.

Grammar patterns[edit]

Genderless languages[edit]

See also: Gender neutrality in genderless languages

Languages with grammatical gender[edit]

See also: Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender

Languages with gendered third-person pronouns that lack full grammatical gender[edit]

Many languages of the world (including most Austronesian languages, many East Asian languages, the Quechuan languages, and the Uralic languages[1]) do not have gender distinctions in personal pronouns, just as most of them lack any system of grammatical gender. In others, such as many of the Niger–Congo languages, there is a system of grammatical gender (or noun classes), but the divisions are not based on sex.[7] Pronouns in these languages tend to be naturally gender-neutral.[citation needed]

In other languages – including most Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages – third-person personal pronouns (at least those used to refer to people) intrinsically distinguish male from female. This feature commonly co-exists with a full system of grammatical gender, where all nouns are assigned to classes such as masculine, feminine and neuter. However, in some languages, such as English, this general system of noun gender has been lost, but gender distinctions are preserved in the third-person pronouns (the singular pronouns only, in the case of English).

In languages with grammatical gender, even pronouns which are semantically gender-neutral may be required to take a gender for such purposes as grammatical agreement. Thus in French, for example, the first- and second-person personal pronouns may behave as either masculine or feminine depending on the sex of the referent; and indefinite pronouns such as quelqu'un ('someone') and personne ('no one') are treated conventionally as masculine, even though personne as a noun ('person') is only feminine regardless of the sex of the referent. (See Grammatical gender § Grammatical gender can be realized on pronouns.) There are both direct and indirect options for nonbinary referents, although the use of some forms is contested.[8]

Issues concerning gender and pronoun usage commonly arise in situations where it is necessary to choose between gender-specific pronouns, even though the sex of the person or persons being referred to is not known, not specified, or (for plurals) mixed. In English and many other languages, the masculine form has sometimes served as the default or unmarked form; that is, masculine pronouns have been used in cases where the referent or referents are not known to be (all) female.[9] This collective masculine is also the case in ancient languages, like Classical Greek and Biblical Hebrew and have influenced the modern forms. This leads to sentences such as:

  • In English: If anybody comes, tell him. Here the masculine pronoun him refers to a person of unknown sex.
  • In French: Vos amis sont arrivés — ils étaient en avance ('Your friends have arrived – they were early'). Here the masculine plural pronoun ils is used rather than the feminine elles, unless it is known that all the friends in question are female (in which case the noun would also change to amies and the past participle would change to arrivées).

As early as 1795, dissatisfaction with this convention led to calls for gender-neutral pronouns, and attempts to invent pronouns for this purpose date back to at least 1850, although the use of singular they as a natural gender-neutral pronoun in English has persisted since the 14th century.[10]

Germanic languages[edit]


Standard usage[edit]

The English language has gender-specific personal pronouns in the third-person singular. The masculine pronoun is he (with derived forms him, his and himself); the feminine is she (with derived forms her, hers and herself); the neuter is it (with derived forms its and itself). The third-person plural they and its inflected and derived forms (them, their, themselves, etc.) are gender-neutral and also used to refer singular, personal antecedents (e.g. "Where a recipient of an allowance under section 4 absents themself from Canada, payment of the allowance shall ..."[11])

Generally speaking, he refers to males, and she refers to females. When a person has adopted a persona of a different gender (such as when acting or performing in drag), pronouns with the gender of the persona are used when referring to that apart from the usual identity of the person. Pronouns are sometimes reversed (gender transposition) in gay slang. He and she are normally used for humans; use of it can be dehumanizing, and, more importantly, implies a lack of gender even if one is present, and is usually, thus, inappropriate. It is sometimes used for a baby when there is no antecedent such as son or daughter and its sex is irrelevant or distracting.[citation needed] It is often used for non-human animals of unknown gender, despite being inaccurate, but he or she is frequently used for a non-human animal with a known gender. He or she are used for a non-human animal who is referred to by a proper name (e.g. "Fido adores his blanket".).[12]

The other English pronouns (the first- and second-person personal pronouns I, we, you, etc.; the third-person plural personal pronoun they; the indefinite pronouns one, someone, anyone, etc.; and others) do not make male–female gender distinctions; that is, they are gender-neutral. The only distinction made is between personal and non-personal reference (someone vs. something, who vs. what, etc.).

She is sometimes used for named ships and countries, but this may be considered old-fashioned and is in decline. In some local dialects and casual speech he and she are used for various objects and named vehicles (like a personal car). Animate objects like robots and voice assistants are often assumed to have a gender and sometimes have a name with a matching gender. (See Gender in English § Metaphorical gender.)

For people who are transgender, style guides and associations of journalists and health professionals advise use of the pronoun preferred or considered appropriate by the person in question.[13][14][15] When dealing with clients or patients, health practitioners are advised to take note of the pronouns used by the individuals themselves,[16] which may involve using different pronouns at different times.[17][18][19] This is also extended to the name preferred by the person concerned.[19][20][21] LGBTQ+ advocacy groups also advise using the pronouns and names preferred or considered appropriate by the person concerned.[22] They further recommend avoiding gender confusion when referring to the background of transgender people, such as using a title or rank to avoid a gendered pronoun or name.[23]

There is no universal agreement on a gender-neutral third-person pronoun which could be used for a person whose gender is unknown or who is a non-binary gender identity; various alternatives are described in the following sections.

It as a gender-neutral pronoun[edit]

Old English had grammatical gender, and thus commonly used "it" for people, even where they were clearly male or female. For instance, cild (the ancestor of "child", pronounced "chilled") is grammatically neuter, as are wæpnedcild and wifcild, literally "male-child" and "female-child". So all three took "it" (hit). Wif (meaning "female", modern "wife") was also neuter, and took "it", while wifmann (literally "female-person", modern "woman") was semantically female but grammatically masculine, and thus took "he".[24] The language gradually developed the natural gender (gender based on semantic meaning) which is common in Modern English.[25]

A 1985 grammar (Quirk et al.) states that whereas "he" and "she" are used for entities treated as people (including any entities that are being anthropomorphized), the pronoun "it" is normally used for entities not regarded as persons, though the pronoun "it" can 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, for instance:[26]

A child learns to speak the language of its environment.

— Quirk et al., A comprehensive grammar of the English language (1985), p. 316–317, 342

According to The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing (1995), it is sometimes the "obvious" choice for children.[27] Examples given include:

To society, a baby's sex is second in importance to its health.

— Miller & Swift, The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing (1995), p. 58.

but also the more colloquial

When the new baby comes, it's going to sleep in Lil's room.

— Miller & Swift, The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing (1995), p. 58.

"It" may even be used when the child's sex is known. In the following story, the characters refer to the boy-child at the center of the narrative as a "he", but then the narrator refers to it as an "it":

"He looks like nobody but himself," said Mrs. Owens, firmly. ... It was then that ... the child opened its eyes wide in wakefulness. It stared around it ...

— Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (2008), p. 25.

In this case, the child has yet to be developed into a character that can communicate with the reader.

However, when not referring specifically to children, "it" is not generally applied to people, even in cases where their gender is unknown.

For more usage of it, see It (pronoun)#Semantics.

For non-human animals[edit]

The Quirk et al. 1985 grammar states that the use of "he" or "she" is optional for non-human animals of known sex.[26] It gives 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.

— Quirk et al., A comprehensive grammar of the English language (1985), p. 316–317, 342

A 2002 grammar states that "he" or "she" is obligatory for animals referred to by a proper name.[12]

One as a gender-neutral pronoun[edit]

Another gender-neutral pronoun that can be used to refer to people is the impersonal pronoun "one". This can be used in conjunction with the generic he according to the preference and style of the writer.

  • Each student should save his questions until the end.
  • One should save one's questions until the end.
  • One should save his questions until the end.

In everyday language, generic you is often used instead of one:

  • You should save your questions until the end.

Generic he and she[edit]

Forms of the pronoun he were used for both males and females during the Middle English and Modern English periods. "There was rather an extended period of time in the history of the English language when the choice of a supposedly masculine personal pronoun (him) said nothing about the gender or sex of the referent."[28] An early example of prescribing the use of he to refer to a person of unknown gender is Anne Fisher's 1745 grammar book A New Grammar.[29] Older editions of Fowler also took this view.[30]

  • The customer brought his purchases to the cashier for checkout.
  • In a supermarket, a customer can buy anything he needs.
  • When a customer argues, always agree with him.

This may be compared to usage of the word man for humans in general (although that was the original sense of the word "man" in the Germanic languages, much as the Latin word for "human in general", homo, came to mean "male human"—which was vir, in Latin—in most of the Romance languages).

  • "All men are created equal."
  • "Man cannot live by bread alone."

While the use, in formal English, of he, him or his as a gender-neutral pronoun has traditionally been considered grammatically correct,[31] such use may also be considered to be a violation of gender agreement.[32]: 48 

The generic he has increasingly been a source of controversy, as it appears to reflect a bias towards men and a male-centric society, and against women.[33] The 19th and 20th centuries saw an upsurge in consciousness and advocacy of gender equality, and this has led in particular to preferences for gender-neutral language. The usage of generic he has declined in favor of other alternatives.

It has also been seen as prejudicial by some,[32] as in the following cases:

  • The Massachusetts Medical Society effectively blocked membership of female physicians on the grounds that the society's by-laws used the pronoun he when referring to members.[32]: 46 
  • The Persons Case, the legal battle over whether Canadian women counted as legal persons eligible to sit in the Senate, partially turned on use of "he" to refer to a (generic) person qualified to be a senator.[34]

Its use in some contexts may give a jarring or ridiculous impression:

"... everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion."

— Albert Bleumenthal, N.Y. State Assembly (cited in Longman 1984), as quoted in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage[35]

"... the ideal that every boy and girl should be so equipped that he shall not be handicapped in his struggle for social progress …"

— C. C. Fries, American English Grammar (1940) quoted in Readers Digest 1983; as cited in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage[35]

"... She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest photograph of himself"

— Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (1971) (quoted in Readers Digest 1983; as cited in Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage)[35]
  • William Safire in his On Language column in The New York Times approved of the use of generic he, mentioning the mnemonic phrase "the male embraces the female".[36] A reader replied with an example of use of the purportedly gender-neutral he:

    "The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty-hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day."

    — C. Badendyck, The New York Times (1985);[37] as quoted by Miller and Swift.[32]: 46 

She has traditionally been used as a generic pronoun when making generalizations about people belonging to a group when most members of that group are assumed to be female:[32]

  • A secretary should keep her temper in check.
  • A nurse must always be kind to her patients.

Avoidance of the generic he is seen by proponents of non-sexist writing as indicating that the purportedly gender-neutral he is in fact not gender-neutral since it "brings a male image to mind".[32] The same would apply to the generic she, bringing a female image to mind.

Singular they[edit]

Since at least the 14th century, they (including derivatives and inflected forms, such as them, their, theirs, themselves, and themself) has been used, with varying degrees of general acceptance, to refer to a singular antecedent.[38] This usage is often called the singular they. Today, some regard it as acceptable and unexceptional, especially in informal language, despite ambiguity as to number.[38][39]

  • 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.
  • "If a person is born of a ... gloomy temper ... they cannot help it."— Chesterfield, Letter to his son (1759)[40]

Though the "singular they" has a singular antecedent, it is used with a plural verb form.[41]

They may be used even when the gender of the subject is obvious; they implies a generic (or representative of type class) rather than individuated interpretation:[42]

  • 'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear the speech — Shakespeare, Hamlet
  • There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend — Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors
  • If some guy beat me up, then I'd leave them. (cf., If some guy beat me up, then I'd leave him.)
  • Every bride hopes that their wedding day will go as planned. (cf., Every bride hopes that her wedding day will go as planned.)

He or she, (s)he, etc.ed[edit]

The periphrasis "he or she", "him or her", "his or hers", "himself or herself" resolve the problem, though they are cumbersome. These periphrases can be abbreviated in writing as "he/she", "(s)he", "s/he", "him/her", "his/her", "himself/herself", but are not easily abbreviated in verbal communication. With the exception of "(s)he" and "s/he", a writer still has the choice of which pronoun to place first.

Some, such as James McCawley, suggest this formulation may promote stereotypes as "he and she [can foster] the standard sexual sterotypes [in that] if you say he or she, you imply that women aren't included unless they are specifically mentioned, and you make it easier to talk about cases where only one sex is included than where both are."[43]

Alternation of she and he[edit]

Authors sometimes employ rubrics[according to whom?] for selecting she or he such as:

  • Use the gender of the primary author.
  • Alternate between "she" and "he".
  • Alternate by paragraph or chapter.
  • Use he and she to make distinctions between two groups of people.

Further historical, regional, and proposed gender-neutral singular pronouns[edit]

Historically, there were two gender-neutral pronouns native to English dialects, ou[pronunciation?] and (h)a.[44] According to Dennis Baron's Grammar and Gender:[45]

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 gender-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 human or non-human animal of the opposite gender. This aforementioned hoo is also sometimes used in the West Midlands and south-west England as a common gender pronoun.[46]

In some West Country dialects, the pronoun er can be used in place of either he or she, although only in weak (unstressed) positions such as in tag questions.[47]

Additionally, in Essex, in the south-east of England, in the Middle English period, the spelling "hye"[pronunciation?] could refer to either he[48] or she.[49]

A 2007 paper reported that in some schools in the city of Baltimore, yo has come to be used as a gender-neutral pronoun.[50][51]

Various proposals for the use of other non-standard pronouns have been introduced since at least the 19th century.

According to Dennis Baron, the neologism that received the greatest partial mainstream acceptance was Charles Crozat Converse's 1884 proposal of thon,[pronunciation?] a contraction of "that one" (other sources date its coinage to 1858[52]):

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.[53]

"Co"[pronunciation?] was coined by feminist writer Mary Orovan in 1970.[54] "Co" is in common usage in intentional communities of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities,[55] and "co" appears in the bylaws of several of these communities.[56][57][58][59] 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.[60]

Several variants of ze[pronunciation?] have been proposed, with different object forms, to meet the need of unspecified gender situations and transgender persons.[61][62] Kate Bornstein, an American transgender author, used the pronoun forms ze and hir[pronunciation?] in the book "Nearly Roadkill: an Infobahn erotic adventure" in 1996.[63] Jeffrey A. Carver, an American science fiction writer, used the pronoun hir in the novel "From a Changeling Star" for a different-gendered nonhuman, in 1989.

List of standard and non-standard third-person singular pronouns[edit]

Independent genitive
Dependent genitive
Natural pronouns
he he is laughing I called him his eyes gleam that is his he likes himself
she she is laughing I called her her eyes gleam that is hers she likes herself
it it is laughing I called it its eyes gleam that is its it likes itself
one one is laughing I called one one's eyes gleam that is one's one likes oneself
they they are laughing I called them their eyes gleam that is theirs they like themselves

they like themself

'em I called 'em
Written conventions based on traditional pronouns
she/he he/she is laughing I called him/her his/her eyes gleam that is his/hers he/she likes him/herself
s/he s/he is laughing I called him/r his/r eyes gleam that is his/rs s/he likes him/herself
(French, 1986)[43]
hhe is laughing
Artificial and proposed epicene pronouns
(Converse, 1884)[64]
thon is laughing I called thon thons eyes gleam that is thons thon likes thonself
(Rogers, 1890)[65]
e is laughing I called em es eyes gleam that is es e likes emself
(Miller&Swift, 1971)
tey is laughing I called tem ter eyes gleam that is ters tey likes temself
(Rickter, c. 1973)[66]
xe is laughing I called xem xyr eyes gleam that is xyrs xe likes xemself
(Farrel, 1974)
te is laughing I called tir tes eyes gleam that is tes te likes tirself
(Elverson, 1975)[67]
ey is laughing I called em eir eyes gleam that is eirs ey likes eirself
(Piercy, 1979)[68]
per is laughing I called per per eyes gleam that is pers per likes perself
(Hulme, c. 1980)[69]
ve is laughing I called ver vis eyes gleam that is vis ve likes verself
(Humanist, 1982)[70]
hu is laughing I called hum hus eyes gleam that is hus hu likes humself
(Spivak, 1983)[71][72]
E is laughing I called Em Eir eyes gleam that is Eirs E likes Emself
ze[pronunciation?], mer
(Creel, 1997)[73]
ze is laughing I called mer zer eyes gleam that is zers ze likes zemself
ze, hir
(Bornstein, 1998)[74]
ze (zie, sie) is laughing I called hir hir eyes gleam that is hirs ze (zie, sie) likes hirself
(Foldvary, 2000)[75]
zhe is laughing I called zhim zher eyes gleam that is zhers zhe likes zhimself
sie, hir
(Hyde, 2001)[76]
sie is laughing I called hir hir eyes gleam that is hirs sie likes hirself
(regional, c. 2004)[50][51]
Yo is laughing I called yo - - -
(Dicebox, 2012?)[77][78]
peh is laughing I called pehm pehs eyes gleam that is pehs peh likes pehself
ze, zir
(anon., c. 2013)[79]
ze (zie, sie) is laughing I called zir/zem zir/zes eyes gleam that is zirs/zes ze (zie, sie) likes zirself/zemself
sey (pron. seɪ), seir, sem
(Rogerson, 2013)[80]
sey is laughing I called sem seir eyes gleam that is seirs sey likes semself
fae[pronunciation?][81][82] fae is laughing I called faer faer eyes gleam that is faers fae likes faerself


The Swedish language has a four-gender distinction in its third-person pronouns: masculine, feminine, common, and neuter, which correspond to the third person forms han, hon, den, det ("he, she, it (common), it (neuter)"). The other forms are gender-neutral: singular first person jag, singular second person du, singular third person indefinite/impersonal man, plural first person vi, plural second person ni, plural third person de. The neuter gender is characterised by the definite singular article '-t', whereas common gender nouns end with '-n'. The same distinction applies to the indefinite adjectival singular forms. For people and animals with specified gender, the masculine or feminine are used. There is no gender distinction in the plural.

In Swedish, the word hen was introduced generally in the 2000s as a complement to the gender-specific hon ("she") and han ("he"). It can be used when the gender of a person is not known or when it is not desirable to specify them as either a "she" or "he". The word was proposed by Rolf Dunås in 1966 and could be used occasionally, like in a guideline from the Swedish building council from 1980, authored by Rolf Reimers. Its origin may have been a combination of han and hon.

It was proposed again in 1994, with reference to the Finnish hän, similarly pronounced, a personal pronoun that is gender-neutral, since Finnish completely lacks grammatical gender. In 2009 it was included in Nationalencyklopedin. However, it did not receive widespread recognition until around 2010, when it began to be used in some texts, and provoked some media debates and controversy, but is included since 2015 in Svenska Akademiens ordlista, the most authoritative spelling dictionary of the Swedish language, by the Swedish Academy.[83]

As of 2016, Swedish manuals of style treat "hen" as a neologism. Major newspapers like Dagens Nyheter have recommended against its usage, though some journalists still use it. The Swedish Language Council has not issued any general recommendations against the use of hen, but advises against the use of the object form henom ("her/him"); it instead recommends using hen as both the subject and object form. Hen has two basic usages: as a way to avoid a stated preference to either gender; or as a way of referring to individuals who are transgender, who prefer to identify themselves as belonging to a third gender or who reject the division of male/female gender roles on ideological grounds. Its entry will cover two definitions: as a reference to an individual's belonging to an unspecified sex or third gender, or where the sex is not known.

Traditionally, Swedish offers other ways of avoiding using gender-specific pronouns; e.g., "vederbörande" ("the referred person") and "man" ("one", as in "Man borde..."/"One should...") with its objective form "en" or alternatively "en" as both subjective and objective since "man"/"one" sounds the same as "man"/"male adult" although they are discernible through syntax. "Denna/Denne" ("this one or she/he") may refer to a non-gender-specific referent already or soon-to-be mentioned ("Vederbörande kan, om denne så vill,..."/"The referent may, if he wishes,..."). Because "denne" is objectively masculine, the use of the word to refer to anyone irrespective of gender is not recommended. One method is rewriting into the plural, as Swedish – like English – has only gender-neutral pronouns in the plural. Another method is writing the pronoun in the referent's grammatical gender ("Barnet får om det vill."/"The child is allowed to, if it wants to." The word "barn"/child is grammatically neuter, thus the use of the third-person neuter pronoun "det"); some nouns retain their traditional pronouns, e.g., "man"/"man" uses "han"/"he", "kvinna"/"woman" uses "hon"/"she", and "människa"/"human being" uses "hon"/"she". While grammatically correct, using "den/det" to refer to human beings may sound as if the speaker regards the referenced human beings as objects, so "han"/"hon" is preferred, for example about children or work titles such as "föraren" ("driver") or "rörmokaren" ("plumber").


In Norwegian, a new word was proposed[weasel words], hin to fill the gap between the third person pronouns hun ('she') and han ('he').[citation needed] Hin is very rarely used, and in limited special interest groups; it is not embraced by society as a whole.[citation needed] A reason for the marginal interest in a neuter gender word is the constructed nature of the word, and that the word is homonymous with several older words both in official language and dialectal speech, such as hin ('the other') and hinsides ('beyond').[citation needed] One can also use man or en or den (en means 'one'). These three are considered impersonal.[citation needed] Amongst LGBT interest groups the word 'hen' is now in use after the Swedish implementation in 2010.[84][failed verification]

Introduction of gendered pronouns into languages that historically lacked them[edit]


Traditionally the third person pronoun in Chinese is gender-neutral. A specific written form for "she" ( ) was created in the early twentieth century under the influence of European languages, but the spoken language remains ungendered.

In spoken standard Mandarin, there is no gender distinction in personal pronouns: the sound can mean "he" or "she" (or "it" for non-human objects).

In today's written Chinese, the same sound is written with different characters: () for "he", () for "she" and () for "it". However, such distinction did not exist before the late 1910s. There was only () for third person pronoun, which did not specify gender or humanness.

In 1917, an influential poet and linguist Liu Bannong borrowed the Old Chinese graph (, with the radical which means "female") into the written language to specifically represent "she". As a result, the old character (), which previously could also refer to females, has become sometimes restricted to meaning "he" only in written texts. The character has the radical rén () with means "human", which also shows it originally was a generic term for people in general instead of a term for males, which should take the radical for male, nán (), like other Chinese characters that represent specifically male concepts.[85]

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.[86] The leaders of the movement also coined other characters, such for objects, (radical: niú , "cow") for animals, and (radical: shì , "revelation") for gods. Their pronunciations were all . The latter two have fallen out of use in mainland China.

Liu and other writers of that period tried to popularize a different pronunciation for the feminine pronoun, including yi from the Wu dialect and tuo from a literary reading, but these efforts failed, and all forms of the third person pronoun retain identical pronunciation.

This situation of identical pronunciation with split characters is present not only in Mandarin but also in many dialects and varieties of Chinese.[85]

The Cantonese third-person-singular pronoun is keui5 (), and may refer to people of any gender. For a specifically female pronoun, some writers replace the person radical rén () with the female radical (), forming the character keui5 (). However, this analogous variation to is neither widely accepted in standard written Cantonese nor grammatically or semantically required. Moreover, while the character keui5 () has no meaning in classical Chinese, the character keui5 () has a separate meaning unrelated to its dialectic use in standard or classical Chinese.[87]

Although there is a mention that when the antecedent of the spoken pronoun is unclear, native speakers will normally assume it is a male person,[86] no evidence is given in the source to support the claim. Many researches instead demonstrate that Chinese speakers don't differentiate pronoun genders in the composition of the preverbal message that guides grammatical encoding during language production.[88] Even proficient Chinese-English learners don't process gender information in the conceptualizer.[89] As a result, Chinese people often mix up the gendered pronouns of European languages in speech.[90] Chinese native speakers can make such pronoun errors when speaking English even after they have been living in an immersive environment in an English speaking country and have a relatively high English level and seldom make other types of errors.[91]

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.[92][93]


There are no pure gender specific third-person pronouns in Korean. In translation or in creative writing in the modern Korean, the coined term 그녀 "geu-nyeo" ( "geu", a demonstrative meaning 'that' and "nyeo", derivative of a Chinese character 女 'woman') is used to refer to a third-person female and "geu" (originally a demonstrative) is used to refer to either a male third person or sometimes a neutral gender.


Just like Korean, pure personal pronouns used as the anaphor did not exist in traditional Japanese. Most of the time the language drops the pronoun completely or refers to people using their name with a suffix such as the gender-neutral -san added to it.

For example, "She (Ms. Saitō) came" would be "斎藤さんが来ました" (Saitō-san ga kimashita).

In modern Japanese, kare () is the male and kanojo (彼女) the female third-person pronouns. Historically, kare was a word in the demonstrative paradigm (i.e., a system involving demonstrative prefixes, ko-, so-, a- (historical: ka-), and do-), used to point to an object that is physically far but psychologically near. The feminine counterpart kanojo, on the other hand, is a combination of kano (adnominal (rentaishi) version of ka-) and jo ("woman"), coined for the translation of its Western equivalents. It was not until the Meiji period that kare and kanojo were commonly used as the masculine and feminine pronoun in the same way as their Western equivalents. Although their usage as the Western equivalent pronouns tends to be infrequent—because pronouns tend to be dropped in the first place—kare-shi and kanojo are commonly used today to mean "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" respectively.[94]

First-person pronouns, ore, boku, and atashi, while not explicitly carrying gender, can strongly imply gender based on the inherent levels of politeness or formality as well as hierarchical connotation.[95] While boku and ore are traditionally known to be masculine pronouns and atashi is characterized as feminine, boku is considered to be less masculine than ore and often denotes a softer form of masculinity. To denote a sense of authority, males will tend to resort to ore to display a sense of confidence to their peers.[95]

Introduction of gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender[edit]

Further information: List of languages by type of grammatical genders, Grammatical gender, Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender

Indo-European Languages[edit]


In 2021, Le Petit Robert de la Langue Française added a third-person gender neutral pronoun to its lexicon: iel.

See also[edit]

Specific languages


  1. ^ a b 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
  2. ^ Audring, Jenny (2008-10-01). "Gender assignment and gender agreement: Evidence from pronominal gender languages". Morphology. 18 (2): 93–116. doi:10.1007/s11525-009-9124-y. ISSN 1871-5621.
  3. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 492. ISBN 0-521-43146-8. Purportedly sex-neutral he
  4. ^ Fowler, H. W. (2015). Butterfield, Jeremy (ed.). Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. pp. 367, 372. ISBN 978-0-19-966135-0.
  5. ^ Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 460. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2.
  6. ^ Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 195. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2. ... resort to it cautiously because some people may doubt your literacy
  7. ^ Corbett, Greville G. (2011). "Sex-based and Non-sex-based Gender Systems". In Dryer, Matthew S.; Haspelmath, Martin (eds.). The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library. Retrieved 2013-04-27.
  8. ^ Knisely, Kris A. Le français non-binaire: Linguistic forms used by non-binary speakers of French. Foreign Language Annals. 2020;53:850–876.
  9. ^ Garner, Bryan A. (2016). Garner's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 821. ISBN 978-0-19-049148-2.
  10. ^ Williams, John (1990s). "History — Modern Neologism". Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ. Archived from the original on December 5, 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-01.
  11. ^ Canadian government (12 December 2013). "Canadian War Veterans Allowance Act (1985) as amended 12 December 2013" (PDF). Government of Canada. R.S.C., 1985, c. W-3. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  12. ^ a b Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 488–489. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
  13. ^ Division of Public Affairs (September 2011). "Style Guide" (PDF). Vanderbilt University. p. 34. Retrieved 2013-09-17. Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
  14. ^ "transgender". The Associated Press Stylebook 2015. Associated Press. 2015. ISBN 9780465097937. Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth. If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.
  15. ^ "Meeting the Health Care Needs of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) People: The End to LGBT Invisibility". The Fenway Institute. p. 24. Archived from the original (PowerPoint Presentation) on 2013-10-20. Retrieved 2013-09-17. Use the pronoun that matches the person's gender identity
  16. ^ Elizondo, Paul M. III, D.O.; Wilkinson, Willy, M.P.H.; Daley, Christopher, M.D. (13 November 2015). "Working With Transgender Persons". Phychiatric Times. Retrieved 2013-09-17. If you are not sure which pronoun to use, you can ask the patient
  17. ^ "Glossary of Gender and Transgender Terms" (PDF). Fenway Health. January 2010. pp. 2 and 5. Retrieved 2015-11-13. listen to your clients – what terms do they use to describe themselves... Pronoun preference typically varies, including alternately using male or female pronouns using the pronoun that matches the gender presentation at that time.
  18. ^ "Competencies for Counseling with Transgender Clients" (PDF). Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling. 18 September 2009. p. 3. honor the set of pronouns that clients select and use them throughout the counseling process
  19. ^ a b Stitt, Alex (2020). ACT For Gender Identity: The Comprehensive Guide. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. ISBN 978-1785927997. OCLC 1089850112.
  20. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions on Trans Identity" (PDF). Common Ground – Trans Etiquette. University of Richmond. Retrieved 2013-09-17. Use the correct name and pronoun- Most names and pronouns are gendered. It's important to be considerate of one's gender identity by using the pronouns of the respective gender pronouns [sic] , or gender-‐neutral pronouns, they use
  21. ^ Glicksman, Eve (April 2013). "Transgender terminology: It's complicated". American Psychological Association. p. 39. Retrieved 2013-09-17. Use whatever name and gender pronoun the person prefers
  22. ^ "Transgender FAQ". Resources. Human Rights Campaign. Retrieved 2013-09-17. should be identified with their preferred pronoun
  23. ^ "NAMES, PRONOUN USAGE & DESCRIPTIONS" (PDF). GLAAD Media Reference Guide. GLAAD. May 2010. p. 11. Retrieved 2013-09-17. It is usually best to report on transgender people's stories from the present day instead of narrating them from some point or multiple points in the past, thus avoiding confusion and potentially disrespectful use of incorrect pronouns.
  24. ^ John Richard Clark Hall (1916). A Concise Anglo−Saxon Dictionary (PDF) (2 ed.). CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS. p. 788. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  25. ^ Algeo, John; Pyles, Thomas (2010). THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENTOF THEENGLISH LANGUAGE (PDF) (6 ed.). p. 91-92, 167.
  26. ^ a b 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.
  27. ^ Miller, Casey; Swift, Kate (1995) [1981]. Mosse, Kate (ed.). The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing (3rd British ed.). London: The Women's Press. p. 58. ISBN 0-7043-4442-4.
  28. ^ Wagner, Susanne (22 July 2004). Gender in English Pronouns: Myth and Reality (PDF) (Thesis). Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg.
  29. ^ O'Conner, Patricia T.; Kellerman, Stewart (July 21, 2009). "All-Purpose Pronoun". The New York Times.
  30. ^ Fowler, H. W. (2009) [1926]. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. pp. 648–649. ISBN 978-0-19-958589-2. Reprint of the original 1926 edition, with an introduction and notes by David Crystal.
  31. ^ 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.
  32. ^ a b c d e f Miller, Casey; Swift, Kate (1995) [1981]. 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.
  33. ^ Dale Spender, Man Made Language, Pandora Press, 1998, p. 152.
  34. ^ Reference to Meaning of Word "Persons" in Section 24 of British North America Act, 1867. (Judicial Committee of The Privy Council). Edwards v. A.G. of Canada [1930] A.C. 124 Archived March 28, 2015, at the Wayback Machine. Human Rights in Canada: A Historical Perspective.
  35. ^ a b c Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage. Penguin. 2002. p. 735. ISBN 9780877796336.
  36. ^ Safire, William (28 April 1985). "On Language; You Not Tarzan, Me Not Jane". The New York Times. pp. 46–47.
  37. ^ Adendyck [Badendyck], C. (7 July 1985). "[Letter commenting on] Hypersexism And the Feds". The New York Times.
  38. ^ a b Fowler, H. W. (2015). Butterfield, Jeremy (ed.). Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 814. ISBN 978-0-19-966135-0.
  39. ^ Huddleston, Rodney; Pullum, Geoffrey K. (2002). The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge / New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 494. ISBN 0-521-43146-8.
  40. ^ Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of (1845) [1759]. "Letters to his Son, CCCLV, dated 27 April 27, 1759". The Works of Lord Chesterfield. Harper. p. 568..
    Quoted in: Fowler, H. W.; Burchfield, R. W. (1996). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. p. 779. ISBN 9780198610212.
  41. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (13 April 2012). "Sweden's gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronoun". ... our pronoun they was originally borrowed into English from the Scandinavian language family ... and since then has been doing useful service in English as the morphosyntactically plural but singular-antecedent-permitting gender-neutral pronoun known to linguists as singular they
  42. ^ 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.
  43. ^ a b "Suggestion for gender-based language change". ProQuest.
  44. ^ As with all pronouns beginning in h, the h is dropped when the word is unstressed. The reduced form a is pronounced /ə/.
  45. ^ Williams, John (1990s). "History - Native-English GNPs". Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ. Archived from the original on December 5, 2006. Retrieved 2007-01-01.
  46. ^ "hoo". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  47. ^ Arthur Hughes, Peter Trudgill, Dominic Watt, English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles, 5th edition, Routledge, 2012, p. 35.
  48. ^ "he". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  49. ^ "she". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  50. ^ a b Stotko, Elaine M.; Troyer, Margaret (21 September 2007). "A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A Preliminary Study". American Speech. 82 (3): 262–279. doi:10.1215/00031283-2007-012 – via
  51. ^ a b Liberman, Mark (2008-01-07). "Language Log: Yo". doi:10.1215/00031283-2007-012. Retrieved 2013-10-26. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  52. ^ Writing about literature: essay and translation skills for university, p. 90, Judith Woolf, Routledge, 2005
  53. ^ Baron, Dennis (1986). "10, The Word That Failed". Grammar and Gender. Yale University Press. p. 201. ISBN 0-300-03883-6.
  54. ^ Baron, Dennis. "The Epicene Pronouns". Archived from the original on 2014-05-09. Retrieved 2010-06-22.
  55. ^ Kingdon, Jim. "Gender-free Pronouns in English". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
  56. ^ "Skyhouse Community – Bylaws". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
  57. ^ "Bylaws – Sandhill – 1982". Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Retrieved 2010-06-22.
  58. ^ "Bylaws – East Wind – 1974". Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Archived from the original on 2013-04-15. Retrieved 2010-06-22.
  59. ^ "Bylaws – Twin Oaks". Federation of Egalitarian Communities. Retrieved 2010-06-22.
  60. ^ "Visitor Guide – Twin Oaks Community: What does all this stuff mean?". Retrieved 2010-06-22.
  61. ^ "Pronouns - Safe Zone". Western Oregon University. Retrieved May 10, 2018.
  62. ^ "ze". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  63. ^ Sullivan, Caitlin; Bornstein, Kate (1996). Nearly Roadkill: an Infobahn erotic adventure. High Risk Books. ISBN 9781852424183 – via Google Books.
  64. ^ 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.
  65. ^ Rogers, James (January 1890). "That Impersonal Pronoun". The Writer. Boston. 4 (1): 12–13..
  66. ^ A discussion about theory of Mind Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine: a paper from 2000 that uses and defines these pronouns
  67. ^ Black, Judie (1975-08-23). "Ey Has a Word for it". Chicago Tribune. p. 12.
  68. ^ 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.
  69. ^ 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 (1996). Distress. ISBN 1-85799-484-1.
  70. ^ Used in several college humanities texts published by Bandanna Books. Originated by editor Sasha Newborn in 1982.
  71. ^ Capitalized E, Eir, Eirs, Em. The change from ey to E means that, in speech, the Spivak subject pronoun would often be pronounced the same as he, since the h of he is not pronounced in unstressed positions.
  72. ^ Williams, John. "Technical - Declension of the Major Gender-Neutral Pronouns". Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ Archived February 22, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  73. ^ Creel, Richard (1997). "Ze, Zer, Mer". APA Newsletters. The American Philosophical Association. Retrieved 2006-05-15.
  74. ^ Example:
    Bornstein, Kate (1998). My Gender Workbook. ISBN 0-415-91673-9.
  75. ^ Foldvary, Fred (2000). "Zhe, Zher, Zhim". The Progress Report. Economic Justice Network. Archived from the original on 2011-01-31. Retrieved 5 January 2010.
  76. ^ Hyde, Martin (2001). Appendix 1 – Use of gender-neutral pronouns. Democracy Education and the Canadian Voting Age (Thesis). PhD Thesis. pp. 144–146. doi:10.14288/1.0055498. Retrieved 2020-02-20.
  77. ^ Dicebox's gender-neutral or "gender-irrelevant" pronoun. (2003)
  78. ^ "Explication of Peh". Dicebox. 2012-09-28. Retrieved 2014-11-08.
  79. ^ Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ Archived June 25, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  80. ^ Rogerson, Mark (2013). This Moonless Sky. ISBN 9781460221976.
  81. ^ "Beyond 'he' and 'she': 1 in 4 LGBTQ youths use nonbinary pronouns, survey finds". NBC News. Retrieved 2020-08-24.
  82. ^ "1 in 4 LGBTQ+ Youth Use Gender Neutral Pronouns, New Study Shows". 2020-07-30. Retrieved 2020-08-24.
  83. ^ Benaissa, Mina (29 July 2014). "Svenska Akademiens ordlista inför hen". Sveriges Radio.
  84. ^ Vindenes, Urd (2015-05-01). "Bør vi begynne å si «hen» i tillegg til «hun» og «han» også i Norge?" [Should we start using "hen" [gender neutral neologism] in addition to "she" and "he" in Norway too?]. Aftenposten (in Norwegian). Aftenposten. Archived from the original on 2020-11-29. Retrieved 12 April 2016.
  85. ^ a b Liu, Lydia (1995). Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity--China, 1900-1937. Stanford University Press. pp. 36–38.
  86. ^ a b Ettner, Charles (2001). "In Chinese, men and women are equal - or - women and men are equal?". In Hellinger, Maris; Bussmann, Hadumod (eds.). Gender Across Languages: The Linguistic Representation of Women and Men. 1. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 36.
  87. ^ "Chinese Character Database: Phonologically Disambiguated According to the Cantonese Dialect". Chinese University of Hong Kong. 2006. Retrieved 2007-02-16. The entry for "" ( notes its use as a third-person pronoun in Cantonese, but the entry for "姖" ( does not; it only gives the pronunciation geoi6 and notes that it is used in place names.
  88. ^ 董, 燕萍; 李, 倩. "中国英语学习者he/she混用错误探源:语信编码中的代词性别信息缺失". 中国外语 (Foreign Languages in China). 2011, 8(03): 22–29. doi:10.13564/j.cnki.issn.1672-9382.2011.03.013.
  89. ^ Dong, Yanping; Wen, Yun; Zeng, Xiaomeng; Ji, Yifei (2015-12-01). "Exploring the Cause of English Pronoun Gender Errors by Chinese Learners of English: Evidence from the Self-paced Reading Paradigm". Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. 44 (6): 733–747. doi:10.1007/s10936-014-9314-6. ISSN 1573-6555. PMID 25178817. S2CID 11556837.
  90. ^ Robinson, Douglas (2017-02-17). Critical Translation Studies. Taylor & Francis. p. 36. ISBN 9781315387857.
  91. ^ 余, 佳颖. "海外中国英语学习者口语中代词性别错误研究". 武陵学刊. 2016, 41(01): 138–142. doi:10.16514/j.cnki.cn43-1506/c.2016.01.023.
  92. ^ Victor Mair (2013), "He / she / it / none of the above," Language Log, April 19, 2013.
  93. ^ Mair, Victoria (2013-12-26). "A Gender-Neutral Pronoun (Re)emerges in China". Slate. [...]others— all pronounced tā—are now being replaced by the actual letters “ta”!
  94. ^ Japanese: Revised Edition, Iwasaki, Shoichi. Japanese: Shoichi Iwasaki. Philadelphia, PA: J. Benjamins, 2002. Print.
  95. ^ a b Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology: Cultural Models and Real People, Okamoto, Shigeko, and Janet S. Shibamoto. Smith. Japanese Language, Gender, and Ideology: Cultural Models and Real People. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. Print.

Further reading[edit]

  • Anne Curzan (2003). Gender shifts in the history of English. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521820073. (includes chapters on "she" for ships and generic he)

External links[edit]