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How to Use Gender Neutral Pronouns

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

The rules governing the use of gender-neutral pronouns are constantly evolving. This lesson will discuss the rules as they currently stand and how they might change. Read on to learn more about gender-neutral pronouns.

Gender and Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that is used to replace a noun in a sentence. We use pronouns constantly in everyday speech and probably don't realize it. Let's take a look at an example:

Mary was worried about failing her history final because she had not studied.

In this sentence, 'she' replaced 'Mary.' We used the pronoun 'she' because repeating Mary's name twice in a single sentence would sound awkward and repetitive. Pronouns could always be replaced by a specific noun, but they are used to create smoother-sounding sentences.

Pronouns are divided into categories based on person and number. Person refers to whether you are talking about yourself (first person), to someone (second person) or about someone else (third person). Number refers to whether you are talking about one person or more than one.

First-person singular pronouns are 'I' and 'me.' First-person plural pronouns are 'we' and 'us.'

The second-person pronoun is 'you' for both singular and plural.

The third-person singular pronouns are 'he,' 'she,' and 'it.' The third-person plural pronouns are 'they' and 'them.'

You will notice that the third-person singular pronouns are the only ones that specify gender, and this is where problems often arise.

Countries with Gendered Pronouns
gender pronouns

Abstract Nouns

In the example at the beginning of this lesson, we replaced 'Mary' with 'she' because Mary is typically a female name. When the gender of the person being referred to is clear, you should use 'he' or 'she' appropriately.

But what about this case?

Example: The ideal applicant for this job will hold a bachelor's degree. He will have excellent communication skills and be proficient in Microsoft Office programs.

In this job ad, the noun 'applicant' is what is called an abstract noun. It is not referring to an actual person, but instead to the person who will be hired for the job in the future. But the job ad writer uses 'he' to refer to this applicant in the next sentence, automatically assigning a gender.

For a long time, using 'he' to replace an abstract noun, where the gender was unclear or unknown, was standard practice in both academic and professional writing. But in the 1980s, as more women entered academia and the workplace, they pointed out that this convention created an unconscious gender bias. For example, in the job ad above, the use of 'he' seems to disqualify women from the position, though that was not the ad writer's intention.

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