gender English global English

Problems with pronouns

August is dedicated to gender English here on the blog, and we kick off another month of lively discussion with a post by regular guest blogger Stan Carey on the topic of gender and pronouns.


English has long had trouble with gender and pronouns. The lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun has inspired many novel suggestions, none of which has ever been broadly adopted. When a pronoun is needed to refer to subjects of unspecified gender (e.g., “If a visitor wants information, ___ should enquire inside), or to indefinite pronouns (e.g., “Everyone should treat ___self to a good night’s sleep”), there is no solution that will satisfy everyone.

Plural pronouns (they, them, their, themselves) have been used for centuries to refer to singular antecedents, not only in informal speech but in classic literature. This raises the hackles of sticklers, though, who protest that it contravenes grammatical concord. The influence of Google+ should give singular they a boost, but Facebook ran into difficulty here. Themself – which centuries ago was used where we now use themselves – is occasionally resorted to, but it is a non-standard form.

Using masculine pronouns by default is now rightly considered to be chauvinist. There is much social value in rejecting sexist language. Combinations like s/he and he or she occasionally suffice, but they can be awkward and annoying. Other options include alternating between masculine and feminine terms; making the antecedent plural (“If visitors want information, they should enquire inside”); and using plural pronouns (“We should all treat ourselves to a good night’s sleep”).

The Egalia pre-school in Sweden has taken some unusual steps as part of a progressive approach to gender equality. Pronouns that are marked by gender, like han and hon – Swedish he and she – are avoided; the non-standard hen, which means she or he, is used instead. (Hen may have been inspired by the Finnish common-gender pronoun hän.) Lotta Rajalin, director of Egalia, says they use it

when a doctor, police, electrician or plumber or such is coming to the kindergarten … Then the children can imagine both a man or a woman. This widens their view.

Whether the Egalia school’s experimental MO is worth the trouble remains to be seen. Such attempts to engineer language might seem negligible or ill-advised, but they at least help raise awareness of bias and discrimination in language that could otherwise often go unnoticed. What do you think – will the strategy help counter gender stereotypes, or is it a pointless exercise in excessive political correctness?

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • It’s a difficult area, Stan, I agree – but not in my view a case of pointless ‘political correctness’. The problem faces lexicographers too because so many definitions of nouns start with ‘someone who/a person who…’ and we often need to use a pronoun later in the definition. British learner’s dictionaries (like the Macmillan one) have been using gender-neutral ‘they’ and ‘them’ for a good 20 years now, as in this definition of ‘bankrupt’ (noun): someone who has officially admitted that they have no money and cannot pay what they owe.
    There are various ways of avoiding this, like those full-sentence definitions that read: ‘if you are bankrupt, you cannot pay your debts’. This often works well, but there’s a problem if the word is something like ‘murder’ (we don’t want to say ‘if you murder someone, you…’).

  • Michael: Thanks for the interesting insights into how it affects lexicography. I agree, it’s not pointless at all, though some measures will be more effective than others. I think there’s a lingering feeling in some quarters that none of this matters much, the same quarters that ridicule attempts to make language less chauvinist. One wonders why! The intensity with which some people oppose singular they also surprises me; it’s as though misapplied logic trumps all other concerns.

  • Stan:
    This is a problem which I dealt with daily as a newspaper and magazine editor. Depending on how late the hour, I often used he/she throughout. At other times I rephrased the sentence(s), and sometimes I simply didn’t bother. Except for pedants, we all use they and them in common speech in these cases, and as you say, it goes all the way back in the language. As we know, we can’t legislate language (thank God!), so I think the conundrum will continue unanswered.

  • Marc: Yes, there’s no solution that fits all cases and contexts. I like singular they, them and their, but despite centuries of impeccable use they still provoke a lot of disapproval. And they don’t work on every occasion; there’s a good example towards the end of this article. So the conundrum will continue, as you say, but rather than going unanswered I would say it will keep prompting an array of answers, none of them perfect.

  • I’m going to try my best not to be too vague or overarching, but I wonder if the use of gender-neutral pronouns to point out chauvinism in language is anything like restructuring the history class curriculum to not be just one war after the other. The idea is that making war a priority in the history classroom perpetuates its priority in students minds year after year and so shapes the world they live in. Changing the curriculum would be interesting, but at the same time, war has been a major part of history and humans will always the capacity to be violent on a large scale.
    What I’m trying to get at is the ways in which we are able to recognize and assess our own biases and the point at which we start fighting against our nature. Pronouns are learned first and then sexist meanings are attached to them (in varying degrees, I assume). But there’s no doubt that people distinguish between genders. I wonder how long it would take – or if it’s possible at all – to break down all the sexist meanings attached to our gendered pronouns. Just like how many years would it take to strip war of its priority in students minds?
    Certainly experiments like the Egalia school’s will lead us to better understand how our brains relate natural necessities (like pronouns) with nurtured meanings (like equality or sexism), right? It should help us see whether finding a gender-neutral pronoun is a step or a necessity in the process of breaking down inequality, depending on how deep in our minds sexism lies and the ways in which it is learned.

    That wasn’t too confusing, was it? Am I grasping at straws here or applying too much meaning to aspects of language?

  • Very interesting thoughts, Joe, and an instructive comparison with history education. What children are taught – at home, at school and elsewhere – often becomes part of their worldview, but it’s not all useful or presented in an appropriate way. Some kids reject or at least qualify what they later learn to be unhelpful or misleading, but this can be difficult; others don’t at all, and cement and pass on the assumptions that came prepacked in the theories and selections of facts they were taught.

    I don’t think Egalia’s avoidance of girls and boys and gendered pronouns is likely have much of an effect (nor would these effects be easy to measure). What’s more important is the creation of a teaching environment that puts children at their ease and nurtures their general education and better instincts (e.g., generosity, empathy). I’m reminded of a cartoon that showed a failed experiment in gender-bias redistribution: a girl, given a gun for Christmas, was pushing it around in a pram; her brother was using his new doll as a machine gun…

    What might be useful is if older children (or teenagers) were given some sort of training in critical thinking: case studies and strategies in analysing not only language but the arguments, politics and structures (like patriarchy) that use it “invisibly”. A little less credit given to official interpretations, a little more to scepticism, uncertainty, and the inestimable value of learning to think for oneself.

  • Stan, the cartoon reference is sweepingly general there ! I was a tom-boy growing up
    and most certainly did not have a pram to put my dinky cars in. I note that the responses
    to this post/article are all from men.

    I am reading books by Tolstoy at the moment , his exhortations regarding philosophy
    are always addressed to man/he/men etcetera – I am not foolish enough to expect that
    we would look retrospectively at how essayists constructed their words, they truly
    believed that those who would read or have access to their books were young , educated
    males BUT I do take issue with recent conservatism, in the biblical overhaul for instance.

    It may have been convention to imagine a young male would change the world but I
    always wondered, whilst growing up as a reader, why, precisely, the job of supporting
    ‘mannerist behaviour’ in politics was shoved onto the female. Conventions of languages
    and behaviour which allowed for women to take supporting roles aided the invisibility
    of women in politics (incl. in war) which to my mind still advises reportage, ideas and
    the invisibility of women in media, politics and broadcast. I don’t bother to buy papers
    which portray women as giggling fools or as decoration, whilst the serious business
    of finance and war is devolved onto the male. One only has to look at reportage of the
    DRC conflict to see that under-reporting of mass-rape is almost a convention of
    blindness and the invisibility of women in war.

    I suppose that that is why women like Elizabeth Barrett-Browning became a heroine,
    she fought for her education and generally thought that convention was pish.

  • Christine: Thank you for the thoughts. Yes, the cartoon reference was sweepingly general. I wasn’t making a grand point with it or anything, just remembering how it suggested the power of gender roles, and that a nudge one way or another is unlikely to have much of an effect in most cases. Stereotyped roles are probably inevitable, but they can be resisted. I remember my sister in primary school preferring to play football with the boys instead of staying indoors sewing. She was a great footballer, better than most of the lads her age, and helped set new precedents I think. But a few decades earlier it would have been even more difficult for her to do this, maybe all but unthinkable.

    You’re right that the media have a lot of responsibility in this regard, and that conventions become so routine and naturalised that fundamental imbalances and wrongs become effectively invisible. An example comes to mind: I remember a headline in a local newspaper that referred to a “missing girl”. She was a 30-year-old woman (30 or thereabouts; I don’t recall exactly). There’s no way “missing boy” would have been used to describe a man of 30. It’s a persistent kind of paternalism by default, anachronistic and demeaning at best and dangerous at worst. The newspaper’s editor was female, for what it’s worth.

  • One wonders what to do about it ? I am quite aware of little girls who question
    sports and media and its great to see. I think that there is a laziness in Ireland
    and a refusal to question. Some things which are a natural part of other societies
    such as questioning gender-roles, and actually seeing women in good positions
    were left behind here ! dare I say it, often women themselves ,like your editor
    are the worst type of sexist , as they maximise the helpless little girl attitude
    to get into powerful positions, (its called ‘the iron fist in the velvet glove syndrome’)

    I hope the next generation tries and confronts it, as boys will also question why
    those girls they grow up with get left behind or treated like silly infants or giggly
    airheads. Theres always hope.

  • I hope so too. Ireland is still very conservative in some ways. It will take another couple of generations, I think, before we reach the stage many progressive societies are at today.

  • An interesting debate and no easy answers to the gender issue. Thank you for bringing it up Stan. I remember in a previous life writing for a provincial newspaper and using the plural pronoun to get around this but I was never comfortable with it. I have to say I applaud any efforts to counteract gender stereotypes and I absolutely agree with you that anything that raises awareness of bias and discrimination is a positive thing. It’s often not taken seriously and those of us who make an effort to challenge it are seen as advocates of political correctness gone wrong. The use of “girl” rather than “woman”, as referred to in your response above, is infuriating and, as you say, demeaning – but it is quite common. As a 50+ woman I am still called “girl” when in a group of women my own age and don’t get me started on “ladies”…..

  • Hi Elaine,

    I always wonder at those women who collude in infantilising both themselves and others.

    I wondered (in a comment above here) about how sustainable it actually is to be acting
    the helpless and/or the girlie giggler. I saw today’s papers and think it’ll be a while, one
    picture had a bunch of bikini-clad gigglers in St Stephen’s Green (?) gathered round ‘a
    delighted gentleman of a certain age’ and wonder if they realise how thick it all appears ?

    Though, considering our gender-imbalanced Dáil and the emphasis on the alpha-male,
    the fecundating at home wifey and the support-role of women, I guess it’ll be a while
    before women stop doing themselves into the ground highlighting skewed gender-perspectives.
    I expect Valium (or something) plays a huge role in it.


  • Elaine: I find it interesting that the term political correctness came to be so strongly associated with the phrase “political correctness gone mad”. Of course, it’s possible to take any good idea too far, but this oughtn’t to discredit the idea itself, as it sometimes seems to me to have done. I have no problem with boy and girl being used informally to refer to adults when there is no implicit condescension – among friends, for example. But there’s no excuse for the newspaper example I mentioned.

    Christine: Your mention of “acting helpless” reminded me of this post at The Anti Room about cutesy voices. You’ve probably seen it already, but it might interest other readers too.

  • l have been doing Polish-English translations for quite a long time but a ‘political correctness’ problem has hit me just recently when doing a philosophical text. l was told by my reviewer not to use the word ‘man’ when referring to a ‘human being’ and thus not to use ‘him’ when referring to ‘man=human being’. Now l am made to produce awkward sentences such as ‘God told the human being not to sin and showed him/her how to… blah, blah’ – it is really driving me mad. ls it good English?

  • Why don’t we use “ta”? It’s the Chinese for he/she/him/her, and it sounds a thousand times better than hen

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