As an introduction to my question, this is a more-than-useful reference:


In my days I was taught (English as a foreign language) that, referring to a singular subject whose sex is undetermined, e.g. a reader, a walker etc., the matching pronoun should be masculine.

How would nowadays react an native English speaker to such a usage to the extent he (!) feels he does have to abide by 'political correctness' —an ironical term, to be sure?

  • This question has been discussed extensively on our sister site, e.g. Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“his” versus “her” versus “their”)?. As you will see in the top-voted answer, “Singular ‘they’ enjoys a long history of usage in English”. Jun 30, 2014 at 14:50
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    This Question appears to be off topic since it's both opinion based and it's not within the scope of learning English as defined in the Help Center. The question is about native English speakers' feelings, and not about English. Jun 30, 2014 at 16:53
  • By judging to the distinguished answers and comments it triggered, my initial question was definitely in the scope of linguistics. Moreover the Oxford dictionary reference underlines an objective and subjective grammatical problem. Putting the question on hold is an exercise of arbitrary power and claiming that it is not 'within the scope of learning English' is simply outrageous.
    – Brice C.
    Jun 30, 2014 at 19:31
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    No, it's not arbitrary. There is a fairly clear definition of what is considered within scope on this site, and "etymology, evolution of the English language, or historical English" are explicitly noted as being off-topic here. If you feel that the interpretation of the help center is wrong, you would be best served by asking about this question on Meta. Jul 1, 2014 at 15:30

2 Answers 2


Native American English speaker and university student here (primarily NE US).

It indeed is and has been the literary standard for a long time to default to the masculine pronoun when the subject gender is ambiguous or unknown, although using they as a singular gender-neutral pronoun is not unheard of (indeed, there are contexts where they as the singular is preferable). This english.SE thread is a good discussion of this subject. In professional contexts, these are the only pronouns you need concern yourself with.

In recent years however, social justice movements and the rise of concepts such as cis-gender privilege have created subcultures (primarily amongst adolescents to university-aged students) where using pronouns such as he or she is indeed offensive (the consequence of the notion that "gender" is something that you identify as, rather than your biological sex). In fact, some universities, even reputable ones such as Wesleyan, have adopted the use of gender-neutral pronouns. (In personal experience, the most commonly recognized are the Spivak, ze/hir, and xe pronoun sets). Such pronouns, however, are nowhere near commonplace and are not ever expected to be.

Moreover, within the LGBT community itself (and even that acronym is under fire; certain communities will insist on LGBTQIA and others will add even more letters), there is no particularly universal consensus on acceptable pronouns. Dan Savage, a noted columnist of the community, describes here one particularly illustrative experience speaking to such an audience at UChicago.

In short, there do exist 21st-century gender-neutral pronouns and even pronouns for genders that are not the traditional male and feminine genders. These pronouns, however, are highly uncommon, almost never encountered in serious professional or academic context, and largely limited to LGBT subcultures obsessed with being politically correct. There are very few English speakers who will even recognize pronouns such as ey or ze or xe, even fewer who will care about it, next to none who will call you out on it, and as a foreign speaker, you'll most commonly be received as someone who's mispronouncing the standard pronouns (he, she, they).

  • Your answer is both well-informed and well argued. I take it as most useful.
    – Brice C.
    Jun 30, 2014 at 19:19
  • +1 That Dan Savage link was truly fascinating! Having a gay brother, I thought I was reasonably clued-up on LGBT terminology, but I was halfway through the article before I managed to even get my head around his use of "queer" (take it from me - at 60, I can see that word has massively shifted in even "average" connotations over the decades! :) I must also say I'm positively envious of your prose style, as well as your obvious knowledge whereof you speak. Jul 1, 2014 at 12:37
  • I have to question the relevance of some of your examples. The Dan Savage link in particular has almost no bearing on the topic at hand, which is how to refer to gender-unspecified impersonal subjects with pronouns. That controversy centered around Savage misgendering a particular non-hypothetical genderqueer person. Jul 1, 2014 at 14:04
  • Although I see your point, my primary purpose in offering the Dan Savage link was to illustrate just how controversial even commonly accepted pronouns can be within the LGBT community itself.
    – Pockets
    Jul 1, 2014 at 15:18

I'm not sure I understand the question. Using "he" as a pronoun in that case will not offend people. You can use "he" or "she" or "they" -- it's generally up to your personal preference. I know some English speakers who don't always want to use "he" but also don't want to use a singular "they", so they just alternate between "he" and "she" every time they need a new impersonal pronoun.

  • You seem to have understood my question perfectly and I will avail myself of you answer. Thank you Ricky.
    – Brice C.
    Jun 30, 2014 at 14:34
  • Dunno why someone saw fit to downvote this answer. Perhaps they misunderstood what you meant by a writer who alternates between "he" and "she". I assume you mean every time he (the writer) references a different gender-unspecified subect, not every time she (the subject) is referenced using a pronoun. It's a pattern I think is far more common in writing than in speech, though. Jun 30, 2014 at 14:51
  • Yes. In my example, every time you refer to a different impersonal subject, you would choose a different gender, which a lot of people find easier than saying "he or she" and preferable to saying "they" for whatever reason. Jun 30, 2014 at 14:54
  • I take it your circumspect don't want to use a singular "they" is a back-handed acknowledgement that some people think this is informal/slangy/"incorrect" usage. A position I don't actually endorse, but it might be helpful for learners to be aware that (rightly or wrongly) this is how some native speakers think. Jun 30, 2014 at 14:58

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