Gender pronouns

This page explains the difficulty of choosing the right pronoun when the gender is not known.


As I said in the main article about gender, the pronouns they/them/their have become widely accepted in sentences with words such as anyone, someone, the person, nobody. More examples:

  • If anyone would like to play football, they should go to the sports hall at 3 o'clock.
  • Someone called you this morning? - Oh really? Did you ask them their name?
  • Nobody called this morning, did they?

But they are less widely accepted in sentences such as the following:

  • To help your child learn English more effectively, you should read to them every evening.
  • When I find the student who stole my calculator, I'll stamp on their foot.

Or in this one that I found in a book on learning vocabulary:

  • "The young ESL learner, on the other hand, has not only new language to learn, they also have new concepts to learn."

If you want to avoid problems like these, but you don't want to use the clumsy his or her / her or his, you will need to reform the sentence. You could do this by changing the singular noun into a plural one in order to match the plural pronoun. E.g.

  • To help children learn English more effectively, they should be read every evening.
  • Young ESL learners, on the other hand, have not only new language to learn, they also have new concepts to learn."

Another approach is to alternate the male and female pronouns. This is what I have done in this series of articles. In one article I refer to the student or learner or child as a he, and in the next I will refer to them as a she.

Update: As of 2020, gender pronouns have proliferated (see Third-person pronoun on Wikipedia) and the whole issue has become increasingly fraught and politicised. Here's an article from the New York City Department of Social Services advocating respect for a person's gender identity by using their preferred pronouns.