I am reading an article now and facing some strange usage of pronouns:

An agent’s probabilities are defined by her willingness to place or accept any bets she believes to be favorable to her on the basis of those probabilities.

The gender of the agent is not defined. Why can't we use the neutral "one" or "one's" in this case? Is this example a manifestation of any new trend in English language?

UPDATE: Excuse me, it was just my misconception. The author stated in the footnote, which I have not initially noticed, that the agent is a female (the article is about quantum physics, and in its tradition there are two general agents – Alice and Bob, so the author was considering Alice).

  • You could side-step the issue with: An agent’s probabilities are defined by the willingness to place or accept any bets believed to be favorable on the basis of those probabilities. Using one or one's doesn't work easily here. I can't actually make any sense of what the sentence is supposed to mean - it is a tautology? Sep 10, 2017 at 20:43
  • Would you have asked if it had used "his", "he" and "him"?
    – James K
    Sep 10, 2017 at 21:10
  • What is the source?
    – user3169
    Sep 10, 2017 at 21:49

1 Answer 1


There are a number of options for a gender-neutral pronoun.

1) Traditionally he was used, but of course, this isn't really gender-neutral, so is widely avoided.

2) He or she is sometimes used, but can quickly become clumsy. There are also ugly, semi-grammatical variations such as he/she or even s/he.

3) They is widely used as gender-neutral. (See here.)

As for one, it can be used in some cases, but there are certain restrictions on its use. In your sentence it wouldn't work. One can never refer back to a noun phrase. "An agent’s probabilities are defined by one's willingness" is ungrammatical because "one's" sounds as though it refers to someone else. "One's probabilities are defined by one's willingness" would be correct, although a little awkward (as would "the probabilities ...").

As far as the use of she is concerned, it could mean:

  • that the author believes the majority of the agents are female, or
  • that the agents are a mixed group but the author is using she on principle.
  • 1
    The old Commodore Amiga developer documentation had what I considered a nice solution: switching the exemplar pronoun every time there was a change in subheading. In one topic the programmer would be referred to with he/him/his and in the next, she/her/hers. (No eirs or Spivaks. ;)
    – Rache
    Sep 11, 2017 at 19:59

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