All men must die, but death can vary in its significance. The ancient Chinese writer Sima Qian said, "Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather." To die for the people is weightier than Mount Tai, but to work for the fascists and die for the exploiters and oppressors is lighter than a feather.


If we have shortcomings, we are not afraid to have them pointed out and criticized, because we serve the people. Anyone, no matter who, may point out our shortcomings. If he is right, we will correct them. If what he proposes will benefit the people, we will act upon it.

They're in a speech Serve the People, it's translated in English by Columbia University.

In original language, "all men alike" should be "all people whoever they are";

If he is right

If what he proposes

They both refer to a person who pointed out the CPC's shortcomings no matter which the gender is.

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    See english.stackexchange.com/questions/522859/…
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 9:19
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    If written in Chinese, 人 really is "person"; "man" is 男人. So a literal translation should be "all people, whoever they are". Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 18:20
  • "The enemy of the platypus is man" - Norm
    – user45266
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 19:06
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    it's archaic and of epic/mythical style to do so. there's lots of info available, probably best to learn the etymology to know why man is used to mean all people in archaic texts... mannu in sanskrit means mankind, people, humans, children of the progenitor of humans. Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 19:43
  • Do consider when something was written. The attitudes of the day are intrinsically wrapped into the wording. This would have been totally "normal" in the 19th century, falling off across the 20th, and now in the 21st century it would be chauvinistic and marks the author as elderly in their age and attitudes.
    – Criggie
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 23:17

7 Answers 7


You are opening a "can of worms!" This is a topic that can cause strong emotions.

It is also not a matter of grammar, but a matter of style.

English doesn't have a pronoun that singular, non-neuter and can apply to both men and women. Different authors have dealt with this in different ways.

In the past, the most common way was to use "he" for a singular person of unknown gender. This is less common now, but you should be aware that older texts will use "he". Your example uses "he" in this way. You will also see "man" or "men" used to mean "people in general".

Currently the most common way is to use "they" for a singular person of unknown gender. This is the recommended pronoun to use. You can usually avoid "man" by saying "mankind" or "people" or "everybody". This is called gender-neutral writing. New texts should usually aim to be gender-neutral when possible and appropriate.

You sometimes see "he/she" in an attempt to be inclusive (but this can exclude some non-binary people) and is generally more clumsy than "they".

So. "He" and "Man" have been used to mean a person of unknown gender, but you should avoid this style in new writing.

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    Also note that "man" was a neuter pronoun but the English language migrated away from that meaning.
    – Borgh
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 10:10
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    @RonaldSole I don't see God as being complication at all. If a god is male, then use he. For many christians, god is not a person of unknown gender. "he" is a person (and spirit) of male gender. But that is matter of faith, and totally irrelevant to this answer.
    – James K
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 11:35
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    Note that the use of 'they' as singular is a revival of a classical usage- it was only in the 18th century that the misconception that it was strictly plural became common. Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 0:15
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    "Currently the most common way " - nope, it's a vocal minority which became the majority only in certain narrow circles, and they now believe they became the majority everywhere. Which is not necessarily true.
    – vsz
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 6:11
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    @vsz What on earth are you talking about vocal minorities for? Are you seriously arguing that people in common parlance use "he" to refer to someone of unknown gender unless they are assuming their gender? Because even when I was 10 doing so would have been seen as strange or old fashioned.
    – user81621
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 11:53

Leaving aside current views on gender identity, historically, "man" has been used as an umbrella term for both genders - and it still is, unless someone objects to it. "Mankind" refers to all human beings (although the term "womankind" has been coined from this to denote only women). When Neil Armstrong said "one giant leap for mankind" he was referring to all humanity, not just males. The term "man-made" refers to anything which has been engineered by a human being, and not by nature.

When referring to specific individuals, however, we always use the correct pronouns, but there has been a historic preference to default to the male gender pronouns when writing certain kinds of documents, such as instructions, that would apply to both genders. For example:

If the user receives an error, he should report it.

Some would avoid this by using the gender-neutral "they"; however, another reason such writing uses a specific pronoun in instructions is to firmly place responsibility with individuals, and using "they" can sound more passive as if the instructions apply to someone else. The alternative is to write:

If the user receives an error, he or she should report it.

The idea behind defaulting to one gender is that it saves time and space, and makes the document more readable. It is quite common for a document or article to state from the beginning that they will use the male gender, but that it applies to both. For example, a popular parenting book refers to the baby as "he" throughout but notes that all advice applies to both baby boys and girls.

In any kind of writing, if you use an individual as an example and suggest that this example applies to a wider range of people, you would use the gender terms appropriate to that individual, and although you are not actually using those terms to address other people of different genders, what you are saying does by extension apply to them.

So the answer to your question is yes - the terms "man", and the associated pronouns can in certain contexts refer to all humankind.

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    Or If the user receives an error, they should report it. Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 10:16
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    @PeterJennings That is certainly another way of writing it! As I said, this isn't an answer about what is currently politically correct, but an explanation of centuries of English grammar.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 10:21
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    I didn't make the suggestion as a PC answer, it was only to point out a way round the ugly he/she constructs. Your penultimate paragraph makes a similar observation concerning readability. Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 14:08
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    @PeterJennings That sort of grammatical word-salad of mismatched numbers is one reason why political correctness smells bad. If you want to rewrite it, there is nothing wrong politically or grammatically with "if the user receives an error, it should be reported" or "if users receive errors, they should report them".
    – alephzero
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 17:25
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    @alephzero except "they" was used in this context long before the term "political correctness" came about. It makes number inconsistent. So what? It still sounds fine to my ear, and has been used this way for centuries. It's certainly not the most egregiously weird bit of English grammar.
    – Muzer
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 10:30

Rather than "can these words refer to all genders" I'd propose to think of it as "are there texts in which these words refer to all genders", to which the answer is an emphatic "yes". It was long the norm to do so and is certainly the case with this passage, which was translated from (a possibly gender-neutral!) Chinese into an academic level of English, probably early to mid 20th-century, when the concept of a gender-neutral "he" and "man" was very strong.

Now, if the question is "Can I use these words to refer to all genders?" the growing consensus in the English-speaking world ranges from "You probably shouldn't" to "Oh hell no". In today's usage there is very strong awareness that "man" and "he" and "him" have left many people who do not personally identify with those words to feel entirely excluded (indeed, to be treated as excluded, which is to say, excluded) from vast bodies of poetry, literature and law. And frankly, I think it's pretty certain that when the authors of mid-20th-century engineering texts wrote "he will need to invest in a good sliderule", very few ever expected a woman to need a sliderule. Likewise I wonder whether many anglophone students of Mao's speeches (I will not presume of Mao or the translator) were envisaging women dying for the people or for the fascist oppressor.

What do do about this is an ongoing discussion. Replacing "man" with "people" is obvious, though it lacks the monosyllabic punch that the speaker may wish for. If I were at liberty to recast that passage, I think I'd go for the opening line "We all must die!". Inclusiveness needn't be gentle.

As for the pronouns my own preference is the singular gender-neutral "they" and "them". These grate against some on the grounds of strict grammar, and against others who prefer novel concoctions with X's and punctuation marks in them, believing perhaps that medicines work best if they taste bad. I often find that recasting into the plural or the first or second person yields a remarkably natural and effective result.

One avenue that I feel strongly is not profitable is to reflect on what these words or their ancestors meant at some time in the arbitrary past. I find is as fascinating as the next person to know how these words came to us over the centuries, but knowing that my Tempo is a direct descendant of a Model T doesn't help me choose the next freeway exit.

  • Counter: nosotros/nosotras. Exclusion?
    – Joshua
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 19:17
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    Wait, you still drive a Tempo? I should think that this gives greater weight to your answer on this topic, as you obviously must be an English professor.
    – Glen Yates
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 19:44
  • Knowing your Tempo is a direct descendant of a Model T can help you to know how to use it though properly though: different models and manufacturers put the controls for indicators, headlights, windscreen wipers, etc in different locations and on different sides of the steering wheel. Indicating at a freeway exit tells the person behind you that you're about to slow down and pull off. Wiping your windscreen at them doesn't. Get those mixed up, and you might not have a Tempo any more... Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 11:18
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    I must confess to exercising some poetic license for the sake of alliteration; I don't really drive a Tempo, I drive a 20-year-old Volvo...and yet I'm still not an English professor! As for nosostros/nosostras, I had to look them up, being almost wholly ignorant of Spanish. Yes, gender neutrality is very much more complex in many other language. But at the other extreme, Japanese has options for gender-specific "I", which would at least make it clear on first introduction how you wish to be addressed.
    – CCTO
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 18:18

"Man", yes. "He", no - but "him" and "his", yes.

From a historical perspective, this is because "man" was a originally gender-neutral word meaning "person" or "human" (incidentally, "human" comes from the Latin "homo" while "man" comes from the Sanskrit "manu" - their similarity is purely coincidental. Also not to be confused with the Greek "homo" meaning "the same"), with the prefix "wer" and "wif" denoting male or female. Eventually "wif" become both "woman" (via "wifman") and "wife", while "wer" was dropped. So, "woman" meant "female person", and "man" segued from "person" to implying "male person" by principle of exclusion.

On the other hand, "he" has always been male, "she" has always been female, and (until the 15th century) Middle English had the non-gendered "hit", which later became the inanimate pronoun "it" - but could originally be used for a person of unknown gender. (Even "it" was originally used as a gender-neutral term for infants)

The weird bit is that the Objective and Possessive conjugations of "hit" were originally "him" and "his" - which by coincidence - happen to match the same conjugations for "he". To reduce confusion, these later morphed into "hit" and "hits". The reflexive form was always "hitself". (Also, the Objective form of "he" and "she" started as "hine" and "heo", and only later became "him"/"her")

  • 1
    Not from the Sanskrit, but is cognate with the Sanskrit (both derived from a PIE term "*mon" (human) perhaps influenced by *men (to think) )
    – James K
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 11:43
  • 1
    Why "no" to "he" but "yes" to "him" and "his"? What pronouns English had in the 15th century might be useful to provide a context, but what's crucial is what the pronouns were at the time of the text under discussion. And we are talking about a text considerably more recent than the 15th century.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Feb 19, 2020 at 18:10
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    The second para in OP's example uses a gender neutral 'he'
    – mcalex
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 4:25
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    There are a huge number of books and recordings up to the 1960s that use "he" in a gender neutral way. It's much less popular that it used to be, but it hasn't entirely died out.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Feb 20, 2020 at 22:03
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    Improvement suggestion: remove the completely incorrect statement "On the other hand, 'he' has always been male, 'she' has always been female." Maybe it has not always been used that way, but to say "has always been male" is incorrect. 2) "it" is still used to refer to people in a gender-neutral way, especially for infants. I have referred to my own babies as "it" many times, and I've heard others do it many times as well. The usage is still alive and well. My experience is in northeastern US.
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 15:50

Consider the US constitution. It uses "he" and "his" for Senators and the President, and meant men only. At the time, women weren't allowed to hold office -- they weren't allow to vote. That looks terrible now. Pretending those words meant all genders is the least embarrassing way to fix it.

That seems wrong -- the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote in 1920 was a formality, right? But a quick refresher of Susan B. Anthony reminds us it was illegal for women to vote, or serve on a jury, and a hard fight to change that. [edit2] Then this Fed 25th 2020 New York Times article about 1776 New Jersey voting laws reminds us that "he" was a deliberate choice in 1776:

Most other states’ revolutionary-era constitutions limited the vote to “freemen” or “male inhabitants.” But New Jersey’s gave the right to all “inhabitants,” as long as “they” — the document uses that gender-neutral pronoun — could credibly declare they had property worth 50 pounds.

A 1797 statute made things even plainer, explicitly referring to voters as “he or she.”

There's quite a bit of beautiful language about the rights of man which was clearly written about men only. After a refresher on Confucianism, Sima Qian probably meant only men. But it feels funny to say "he was a sexist pig, but only because everyone was a sexist pig back then. We're sure he would have written men and women if he'd known better". Easier to pretend those words always meant everyone.

Again, that can't be right. Confucius was a holy man. But a quick search turns a claim he felt women were "at best, subhuman beings" in this book abstract. Alexander Pope famously wrote "The proper study of mankind is man" in 1734. But in England married women didn't count as people until the 1870 Married Women's Property Act

In say, the 1970's, he/him were deliberately used as both, in a funny way. Many professions were all-male and used "he". Women joining them wasn't popular, so the "he" was kept -- if anyone asked, it meant women too. Over the years "they", "them" and "him or her" became more common, and "he" tended to mean men only again.

Again, that sounds wrong. The Land of the Free didn't like women working men's jobs? But rewatch Mad Men, or review the semi-decent 'pedia's History of Women in America. Click down to PostWar and women forcing their way into jobs. Note that before the 1963 Equal Pay Act, it was legal to have one salary for men, and another for women.

  • 1
    I don't feel like any of them are controversial. Which jump out at you? The other answers make similar assertions with no references. I'd feel funny citing the 19th amendment, Little Women, and the movie "Anchorman". Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 5:05
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    "the US constitution [...] meant men only", "Pretending those words meant all genders", "which was clearly written about men only" (presenting opinion as fact), and the entirety of the third paragraph: "In say, the 1970's, [...] to mean men only again."
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 5:30
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    While there is a kernel of truth to this answer, it's only just that. The answer is less true because of the extreme end it is taken to. To assume "he", "his", and "man" were always completely because of sexism and female exclusion and never because of gender neutrality is plainly and simply wrong. This answer would be more correct, and possibly worthy of upvotes instead of down, if it lost the absoluteness. If a law said "no man shall be permitted to steal" and a female stole, do you think that would be accepted? There were bigots aplenty yes, still are, but it was still gender-neutral.
    – Aaron
    Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 15:59
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    I was worried about offending readers by explaining women's suffrage as if they'd never heard of it. Convincing someone that women weren't historically considered men's equals, or even close, is beyond the scope. But I tried to add references in an "of course you knew this, but haven't thought about it recently" tone. I'm not claiming "he" was always men only, but was very often that way. As for "men" stealing, weren't there often different punishments for women and men? Commented Feb 21, 2020 at 19:01
  • Absolutely great answer! Thank you for providing historical context that I am sure adds to our modern understanding of the usage of gender pronouns. One minor thing: "There's quite of beautiful language about the rights of man which was clearly written about men only." Did you mean "That is quite some beautiful language about the rights of man which was clearly written about men only."?
    – Eddie Kal
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 21:19

Yes, that is the grammatically correct way to state it. However, some people think gender-neutral "he"/"man" is offensive.


In short, yes.

"He" had been used for both sexes during the Middle English and Modern English periods.

In the second half of the 20th century, people expressed more widespread concern at the use of sexist and male-oriented language. This included criticism of the use of "man" as a generic term to include men and women and of the use of "he" to refer to any human, regardless of sex (social gender).

source: wiki

Besides that, American English speakers use “their” and “they” as singular pronouns all the time in spoken English. They use it when the gender of a person is not known. They also use it when they do not want to say the gender.

source: VOA

  • +1 vote for answering this question, whether its quality is high or not.
    – user108144
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 11:18

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