In Italian, when I am talking about an unknown person, I would use the third person singular, masculine. For example, I could say Chi ha rubato le chiavi alla ragazza è qualcuno che ha potuto avvicinarsi alla ragazza (literally, "he who has stolen the girl's keys is somebody who has been able to approach the girl"); if I would use the feminine gender, I would imply I am talking of a woman/girl. In this case, the sentence would not use qualcuno, but qualcuna.

Is using he as a neutral gender acceptable in English?
A friend of mine said that she considers using he as a neutral pronoun acceptable, but I have noticed that (for example) some error messages given from applications, or web sites use the singular they.

  • By the way, chi ha rubato, as subject, requires a personal pronoun (he who) or indefinite pronoun (whoever) at the head of the clause in English; who is now a relative pronoun only and has not been used this way since the early 17th century. Feb 25 '13 at 16:52
  • That is a mistake I keep doing because chi ("who") is an indefinite pronoun together chiunque ("whoever"). Most of the times, chi is used in Italian. If I say chiunque instead of chi, I would give a different meaning to the sentence. For example, with chiunque ha sbagliato deve pagare ("whoever made a mistake must pay") I would say that I don't care who made a mistake; even if that person is very important, that person must pay.
    – apaderno
    Feb 25 '13 at 17:40
  • Whoever is used similarly in English, and may contrast with He who, but it doesn't have to: "Whoever's got my car keys please give them back" is colloquial for "He who has my car keys &c", which is preferred in formal use. English used to employ your use: "Who steals my purse steals trash" (Othello). Feb 25 '13 at 17:53

Would your example in full be something like this in English?

I don’t know who has stolen the girl's keys. [?] is somebody who has been able to approach the girl.

In that case we can begin the second sentence with It. This is unusual, and it doesn’t mean that the thief is inanimate. Rather, it refers to the entire thieving episode.

StoneyB’s answer gives a good picture of the overall situation, but I would be less cautious about using they to refer to a singular antecedent. Such use has a long and respectable history as shown here. Moreover, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of they is

Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’).

For those who find such use awkward, a workaround is often available by making the antecedent itself plural.

  • +1 My caution refers to situations like this. Once you get into complex sentences or discourses stretching more than a sentence or two you find questions of ambiguous reference or agreement keep cropping up; and few people confine their writing to textbook-type isolated sentences. Feb 25 '13 at 16:47
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    If none of the workarounds were appropriate in that case (and that is unlikely), I’d just say to hell with it and write Your reader is [...], but he’s a busy person. Feb 25 '13 at 17:11
  • Ayup. I think I suggested Your readers are ... but they're busy people. Feb 25 '13 at 17:15
  • Thanks for pointing out that it is really an inanimate pronoun, not a “neuter” one. ESL materials are too quick to present a super-simplified version of reality that does not map well to actual usage. The Old English pronoun set, and overall grammar, never did map well to a Latin model, and those original pronouns never actually settled down into one, either. The animate–inanimate axis of they–it is an important one in English, and few ELL folks are ever taught of its importance.
    – tchrist
    Feb 25 '13 at 17:23
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    @tchrist. In my limited experience of teaching ESL I found that the teacher has to withhold some of the truth to make any progress. That may be true of all teaching. Feb 25 '13 at 17:43

It was acceptable, and indeed the dominant convention, until the 1970s, when what was then called the Women's Liberation movement called its propriety into question.

Today it's no longer acceptable to most of the institutions, public and private, which determine what is published and what is not. Eschew it.

The language is still trying to sort out what is to replace it. He or she (or s/he) and its inflections his or her, him or her (his/her, him/her) are often used, but are clumsy (and the slashed variants are unspeakable). There's considerable sentiment for singular they, which is perfectly acceptable in isolation but creates impossible ambiguities and grammatical cruxes in complex utterances; I cannot believe it will ever be embraced by the academic community. People have suggested many new coinages to supply its place, but none of these has gained wide acceptance.

My recommendation is that while you're waiting for the language to shake down you find a way to recast your sentences either with plurals or without gendered pronouns; in this particular case: "Whoever stole the girl's keys has to have been someone who was able to approach her".

  • I've also seen, if writing a long article with examples involving anonymous singular persons, to alternate the usage of he and she, to avoid the implication of gender bias. Feb 25 '13 at 15:58
  • @TrishRempel Yes, and I've employed that in my own practice where I could. But those particular circumstances rarely arise; and a generic she tends to make my clients (mostly women) even more uncomfortable than generic he. Sigh. Feb 25 '13 at 16:03
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    As a reader, I find alternating he and she very distracting. Feb 25 '13 at 16:18
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    I’m with @Barrie here. Generic he is somewhat distracting, but because English has never a generic she, that one is distracting as hell. Generic they I don’t even notice — probably because it’s how people actually talk, which surely counts for something, and perhaps everything.
    – tchrist
    Feb 25 '13 at 17:17
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    I think the language already had "they" sorted out and waiting in the wings to replace "he" well before the 1970s ("they" has been used for this purpose by some native English speakers for centuries). It's just that some people are still unwilling to accept this. Feb 25 '13 at 17:21

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