I'm not sure what is right and what not. I've searched on Google and could not find an answer to this. How should I write this:

I'm speaking about a user. It is the main problem.

The question is. Is this corect? In this context should I use "It" or "he"?

  • 6
    Welcome to ELL! A related question you might want to look over is ell.stackexchange.com/q/48299/9161. You should never use "it" for a person unless you intend to insult them :) One of the common solutions is to use "they" even though it is usually plural.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 19:10

7 Answers 7


In English, a person is almost never referred to as "it". If you know that the person is male, say "he", and if you know the person is female, say "she". If you don't know, that gets into the whole subject of what pronouns to use for unknown gender, which has been discussed at length in response to other questions on this site.

"It" IS used to refer to a person in some special cases. The main one is when we need a pronoun as a place holder to connect to a noun. For example, "A friend of yours called yesterday." "Oh? Who was IT?" Especially if the point is to discuss whether the person is male or female. Like, "Alice had a baby." "Is IT a boy or a girl?" Saying "Is he a boy or a girl would seem a bit of a paradox.

  • 6
    +1 I didn't think about "Who was it (that called)?" when I said never use "it" for a person. Usually I'm much more careful about using "never" and "always".
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 19:42
  • @ColleenV: Are you sure the it refers to the person (a friend), rather than the "event" (a friend calling), with the interrogative pronoun who specifying which part of the event you are particularly interested in? Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 10:55
  • @O.R.Mapper It occurred to me that there the interrogative was a special case, but I didn't have the time to run it down. Babies are persons, so the "was it a boy or girl" example made it trickier to explain away. I still think avoiding never and always is a good idea though ;)
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 13:20
  • +1 People often refer to babies as it though, even if they know the gender of the baby. Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 13:27
  • @O. R. Mapper It's Stacy on the phone for you shows that it is referring to the caller, not to the "event." One could even substitute your wife, your son, etc.
    – user6951
    Commented Feb 7, 2015 at 18:22

You don't use "it" for people.

For an unknown person, most writers will use either "he or she", or they'll use "they". (This usage of "they" to refer to a single person is called the "singular they".)

  • (One exception: if a person explicitly tells you that they prefer to be "it", you use "it". But that's a really rare case.) Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 2:10
  • Nice idea to switch to 'they' and avoid a gender.
    – kaiya
    Commented Jul 26, 2022 at 10:49

As others have mentioned, using "he or she" or "they" is far more appropriate than "it".

However, I'd like to point out that few people actually say "he or she" in practice, except in a more formal setting such as documentation. In spoken communication, it is most common to use "they".

So, assuming your example was part of a spoken conversation, it would more likely be:

I'm speaking about a user. They are the main problem.


Historically, referring to a person of unknown gender as "he" was common practice, and still is to some extent. In attempts to be more "politically correct" some writers use "he or she," "he/she," or other variants. Some readers react negatively if they perceive the writer is being too politically correct, though.

I would suggest using "they," since it is near-universally recognized as a third-person singular pronoun for when the gender is unknown. "He" is also still perfectly acceptable, though some overly sensitive readers might accuse you of sexism or ignoring women.


Another reason to consider the use of "they" instead of he/she, from https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/ (mirror):

The dichotomy of “he and she” in English does not leave room for other gender identities, which is a source of frustration to the transgender and gender queer communities.


I think if you don't know gender of a user you can write "she/he" but it would not be appropriate to use "it" for people, even animals if you know their genders.

  • 3
    We do use it to refer to animals of known gender. Just not all the time. (With pets such as dogs and cats, we would.) Frankly if I come across a dangerous snake and recognize its gender from its contour and/or coloring, I'm not adverse to saying 'Look a snake, we need to walk carefully around it.'
    – user6951
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 19:36
  • 1
    @δοῦλος I mean if you know gender of an animal, it will be more appropriate to say "she" or "he".
    – Mrt
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 20:09
  • 9
    I don't know about that. I know that a cow is female, but if somebody tells me "There's a cow in the road", I would say, "What's it doing there?" not "What's she doing there?" But like δοῦλος says, the more "personal" an animal is, the more likely I am to say "he" or "she".
    – stangdon
    Commented Feb 6, 2015 at 21:32

A user is most definitely "she", because it is living person you are referring to. Historically, persons of undefined gender were referred to as "he", but it is considered politically correct to use "she" instead these days. For example, in my college papers I always made a point of using "she" when referring to a person of undefined gender. Be aware, however, that this may somewhat distract from the content of what you are writing about, since "she" is still a somewhat unusual form. This has to do with the fact that, again, historically, "he" was used and was considered the default (and "she" seems to indicate that the gender of the person you are referring to is all of a sudden important, when in fact it isn't).

  • I kinda like this approach, but I'm concerned I can find no reference about it. I therefore worry I would be the only one using this solution. Do you have any pointer?
    – iago-lito
    Commented Feb 1, 2019 at 11:46

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