This page explains the difficulty of grammatical gender for English language learners.


One aspect of English that is certainly easier than in some other languages is gender. In German, for example, nouns can be masculine, feminine or neuter, and the learner has to know which in order to choose the right article, pronoun and adjective ending. For example, and for no apparent reason, a spoon in German is a he (der Löffel), a fork is a she (die Gabel) and a knife is an it (das Messer)!

In English it is easy; males are a he, females and ships are a she, and everything else (including most animals) is an it. However, this does not mean there is never any problem in choosing the correct pronoun. This is in fact an area that can cause some difficulty - and not only for the non-native speaker.

First task

As an example, look at the following sentences and decide which of these pronouns would you put in the gaps:

a. him    b. her   c. him or her   d. her or him   e. them

  • If you know anyone who can help me, please ask ..... to come to my room.
  • "There's somebody on the phone for you." - "Tell ..... to call back later!"
  • When I find out who broke my calculator, I will punch ..... on the nose!

Social history

Before deciding which pronoun is best, it is necessary to concern ourselves with a little social history, in particular with the influences of feminism on the English language.

@From the mid 1960s, some feminists argued that some aspects of the English language not only reflected the lack of equality between the sexes but also in some ways was responsible for it.~ For example, they objected to the fact that all adult males were referred to as Mr, whereas adult females were called Mrs or Miss, according to whether they were married or not. As a result, the new form of address Ms was suggested for women of both types of marital status, and this has now been widely accepted.

They also objected to words like fireman, spokesman, etc., preferring fire fighter, spokesperson. And they particularly disliked the automatic use of the male pronouns he, him, his in sentences where the sex of the person being referred to is unknown or unimportant.

Task solution

This brings us back to the pronoun task above. Namely, which is the best pronoun to use in the kinds of sentences highlighted? Well, @@if you want to avoid the accusation of using sexist language, you should not automatically employ the masculine pronoun 'him'.~~

You could use her in an effort to redress hundreds of years of language imbalance. But to many people this would sound unusual and may make them ask themselves why you chose the feminine pronoun. This is fine if you want to draw attention away from what you are saying to how you are saying it!

Him or her is quite commonly used in such sentences, although more often in written than spoken language. Her or him does not roll off the tongue so easily as him and her. But it is perfectly acceptable, and would probably sound more natural if more people started to use it. One problem with both him and her or her and him, however, is that they can make for some very convoluted sentences. For example:

Your child will learn English most effectively if she or he continues to develop her or his own language at the same time, so try to read to her or him in her or his mother tongue every day!

They (them, their) is a very common choice, especially in British English. Although it does not seem grammatical to refer to a singular person with a plural pronoun, it is now quite widely accepted. It certainly avoids any of the problems of the other possibilities. Which pronoun you choose is up to you. They are all grammatically correct, but they are not all equally politically correct!

[Read more about gender pronouns and find out why I use the pronoun he in the next paragraph!]


So in what way does this make English difficult for the non-native speaker? Well, @@@the advanced learner needs to be aware that this is a sensitive issue, and if he wants to avoid causing offence to some people, he will need to know the words to avoid and which ones to use instead.~~~ This adds just one more level of complication to the job of learning this difficult language!


The following words are all ones that have been criticized as being sexist for various reasons. Do you know what alternatives have been suggested?

Example: fireman → firefighter

  • chairman
  • police man
  • foreman
  • man (as in the sentence: Man is the most intelligent of all animals. )
  • man-made fibres
  • poetess
  • stewardess
  • male nurse
  • manhole

Common alternatives:

  • chairman → chair or chairperson
  • police man → police officer
  • foreman → supervisor

It is quite common to see the female forms spokeswoman, chairwoman, police woman , etc. However, some people object to these words also, because they draw attention to the sex of the person and away from their job or function. They feel that it is not important whether the spokesperson is a man or a woman. What is important is their (his or her!) function.

  • man → Humans are the the most intelligent of all animals.
  • man-made fibres → synthetic fibres
  • poetess → poet

Poet is preferred for the same reasons that police officer is preferred to police woman. There is no reason at all to use the word poetess when poet can refer to both men and women.

  • stewardess → flight attendant
  • male nurse → nurse

By specifically mentioning the gender, you are implying that male nurses are the exception. Any language that unnecessarily serves to draw attention to the gender and not the function of the person is considered sexist.

  • manhole → manhole

A manhole is the name for the hole in a city street that leads down to the underground water / sewage systems. The word has nothing to do with gender and can therefore stay as it is.

Note: A story has grown up that some radical feminists want to replace the word manhole with personhole. Although I have no evidence, I am sure that such rumours are put about by people who are against political correctness (PC) and want to bring the campaign for eliminating sexist language into discredit by inventing ridiculous claims.

Further reading

If you want to inform yourself more on this interesting topic, have a look at the American Philosophical Association's list of Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language.