Did you know he and she are the only gender-specific pronouns in the English language? While it may be obvious to most native English speakers that he is masculine and refers to a male and she is feminine and refers to a female, non-native English speakers may confuse the two. And what happens when someone wants to remain gender-neutral? Here are a few grammar rules for they, he or she usage that will help you stay the course and achieve your writing goals.
Many languages use gender-specific pronouns to refer to a variety of objects that are obviously without gender. Many of the Romance languages, for instance, refer to objects as he or she, instead of the non-specific word it. Every object, animate and inanimate, is therefore ascribed a gender. This can be difficult for English speakers learning a foreign language, like French or Spanish, because with every new vocabulary word comes a corresponding pronoun.
Interestingly, though, the English language employs the word it as a gender-neutral term to refer to inanimate objects or animate objects that are not human beings. Additionally, you can use the gender-neutral they as a singular pronoun for individuals. Learn more about each pronoun and how to use it in a sentence.
In English, he, she and they are known as subject pronouns. They’re used only when referring to people and, in some cases, animals such as pets (although such usage isn’t technically correct). These pronouns function in a number of ways.
He, she and they may be used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence.
- He promised to come to the movies. (the subject is male)
- She told me she would return shortly. (the subject is female)
- They went to the movies with their friends. (the subject is non-binary)
The subject can be renamed in a sentence so that the individual speaking or writing need not repeat the name over and over.
- Dana lied so she would not have to go to school. (You wouldn’t say, “Dana lied so Dana would not have to go to school.”)
- Ben got up early so he could take the bus. (Rather than, "Ben got up early so Ben could take the bus.")
- Alex rushed down the street so they wouldn't miss their flight. (It would be redundant to say, "Alex rushed down the street so Alex wouldn't miss Alex's flight.")
Generally, we don’t ascribe gender-specific pronouns to inanimate objects in the English language. However, mainly due to tradition, there are a few instances where it’s okay to use he and she to refer to inanimate objects. Let’s take a look.
- Sailing vessels, for example, have often been referred to as “she.” Even when the ship is named after a man, such as the USS Ronald Reagan, “she” is accepted.
- Countries are sometimes still referred to as “she” as well. “There’s America,” you might point out to a friend from inside a plane. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
- Some people name inanimate objects and refer to them as “he” or “she.” For example, B.B. King’s ES-335 guitar was named Lucille after a woman involved in an incident at a club he was playing in his earlier years. He often referred to the guitar as “she.”
- Children often name their dolls and stuffed animals with gender-specific pronouns.
- Some people name their vehicles or even their homes, and “he” and “she” may be used to describe them.
For years, if the gender of an individual referred to in a sentence is unknown, “he” would be used as the generic pronoun.
- “We don’t know who started the fire,” a police officer might say, “but he will be held responsible.”
It was understood, by both the police officer and any listeners, that “he” could refer to either a woman or a man. To be inclusive, this did morph to the use of the clunky "he/she." However, he/she is limiting since it does not account for non-binary individuals.
As culture changes, so does the language, and many believe that the exclusive use of he or he/she for a person of unknown gender is outdated. Therefore, the singular they is the preferred pronoun. In specific sentences, you can also use one or a descriptor.
- You can use one, as in, “One never knows what to expect at game night.” However, this comes off a bit stilted and stiff.
- You can use they, as in, “We don’t know who left their tablet on the table, but they will surely come back to look for it.” This is currently the most acceptable option when it comes to an individual with unknown pronouns.
- You can use a descriptor as in, “We’re looking for the owner of this tablet, but the individual hasn’t come back to claim it yet.” This example isn’t perfect, but it can work when the word they makes sentences awkward.
While it may seem awkward to use the singular they, the Associated Press weighed in on the matter in March 2017. It announced that The AP Stylebook will accept the plural “they, them, and their” to refer to a singular antecedent when the alternative wording is awkward or clumsy. It seems the authorities on the matter knew writers were continually put in a tough spot when they wanted to remain gender-neutral and came to the rescue. Many other writing styles like MLA and APA have also followed suit.
Understanding how and when to use he, she or they can be interesting. If you’d like to continue this multi-faceted study into the world of pronouns, come on over and join the fun. You can also try your pronoun grammar knowledge out through pronoun activities and a pronoun quiz. Additionally, find out more about pronoun agreement through this interesting article. And if you are looking for some fun, check out pronoun games.