Would it be incorrect to write a sentence like “I asked my girlfriend if they would … “, as the sex would already be known due to the use of the word girlfriend? It was my understanding that once sex was known, he or she should be used, not they. I got into a friendly argument about this, where it was brought up that they is epicene, which means it can be used to refer to either sex. I took this as it could refer to either sex if the sex was unknown (“filling in the blank”), but was told that it could actually be used even if the sex was known. I couldn’t find much information on this one way or the other, and am now in a state of confusion regarding this. It’s the first I’ve heard of they being used in such a fashion.

  • I believe this is changing very fast as "they" is being pushed as a gender-neutral pronoun even when the gender is known. I know more than one person who makes a point of using "they" even when they (ditto) know the gender of the person concerned. I like to call myself a descriptivist, so I won't state my opinions on this new habit that is in the process of forming, but I'll just point out that the answer will very likely change dramatically depending on who you ask, "knowledgeable" people included.
    – LjL
    Aug 25 at 23:35
  • In a context of formal writing, I'd say it's incorrect. In non-formal contexts, it seems to be more of a style choice that's more common of Anglophones born after 1985. For older people or for English-as-second-language persons, most likely we're going to say "she" if we know it's a she, and we'll say "he" in all other cases (i.e. many use 'he' as the default pronoun in an unknown case). In formal writing, some stylists have suggested that we alternate between he/she. Personally, when I read a written text, I find that style to be the most pleasant/comprehensible/inclusive.
    – Brandin
    Aug 26 at 4:45

1 Answer 1


It would be better to be consistent. You could refer to “my partner” as “they,” or you could refer to “my girlfriend” as “she.”

However, it is not unheard of for people to use “they” even if the gender is known. It is slightly less grammatical, but it shows solidarity with people who don’t wish to disclose their gender or don’t consider gender to define their identity.

Language often has to change over time to keep up with societal views. For example, it used to be normal to refer to male performers as “actors” and female performers as “actresses.” Technically, it would be incorrect to call a woman an actor. But nowadays, this happens all the time, and in general there is a tendency to use language that is less gender-specific (because this is more inclusive). You could say that using “they” for a known gender is a deviation from standard English - but you could also say it is evolution.

  • I'd say using "they" when the gender is known shows solidarity with people who have chosen different pronouns, rather than the reasons you give. And I think that the things in your last sentence are both true, rather than in opposition: using "they" when the gender is known is not standard English, and the language is currently evolving in that direction, but with no indication whether this change is going to become standard.
    – gotube
    Aug 30 at 3:08
  • "Technically, it would be incorrect to call a woman an actor." - Where/when did you get this information? The way I always learned it (1980+) was that 'actor' was gender-neutral, whereas "actress" is a specialized word specifically to refer to a woman or a girl, similar to how "masseuse" is a massage therapist who is a woman, or similar to how "stewardess/hostess" is a female airline steward. Some of these words have come out of favor (like stewardess for example) but in any case I've never heard a rule that it would be 'incorrect' to refer to a girl actor using the word 'actor' for example.
    – Brandin
    Aug 31 at 12:55
  • There is one context in which 'actor' only refers to males - in split male/female awards contests, e.g. "best actor - best actress." In such a specific context, 'actor' refers specifically to the male category of that award, whereas 'actress' refers specifically to a member of the female category. But this chauvinstic usage of the word is extremely specific. In everyday life, if I ask you "who is your favorite actor?", then of course you are free to answer with a male or a female. Thus it is really better interpreted as a gender neutral term than as a chauvinistic one.
    – Brandin
    Aug 31 at 13:10
  • This is perhaps generational, @Brandin. I grew up in the 1960s and in the English that learned and speak, the word 'actor' refers only to a male, if the gender is known. It sounds awkward to me for a female to call herself an actor. Interestingly, you cite the sentence, 'Who is your favorite actor?' as using a gender neutral form, but that flies in the face of the inclusive language you support elsewhere. If I said, 'Every person deserves his day in the sun,' I would be criticized for being non-inclusive, but that's exactly the same as, 'Who is your favorite actor?' to me.
    – dwilli
    Sep 2 at 6:25
  • @dwilli OK so then you would phrase it instead as "Who is your favourite actor/actress?" I suppose that's a valid choice. I've never heard anyone phrase it like that personally. For he/she using both is common and personally sounds more inclusive to my ear ("everyone deserves his or her day in the sun") than inserting only a generic 'he' (which, in literary style, could refer to any person, not just males) or inserting a generic 'they'. But these are all more of style choices in my opinion. Finally, to be ultra-inclusive one can say he/she/them to include those who object to the he/she labels.
    – Brandin
    Sep 4 at 6:04

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