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Gender neutrality seems like a tough nut in English. "One" seems very helpful, but since it's pretty difficult to phrase a right question regarding its usage because of the countless possible uses of this word, finding a concise set of rules can get tough. The answers I managed to find though, varied; hence my two questions.

  1. Is it common both in American English and British English to use the form "one" as a gender-neutral pronoun? Or perhaps it would sound odd in one of the dialects?

  2. If I'm willing to stay gender-neutral, should I stick to using singular "they", "their", etc. or is it best to either use generic he or rephrase the whole sentence? I've always used this form as follows:

    One should be aware of their surroundings.

But one of the sources stated it's a bit confusing, and I'd be better off saying:

One should be aware of one's surroundings.

It seems to me that repeating "one" bears the same issue as "he or she" form - it sounds pretty awkward and cumbersome.

On the other hand, replacing one's with, for instance, his, seems to comprise the whole idea of gender neutrality.

And, leaving off "one", do you think there's anything wrong at all in utterances like:

A reporter is not always allowed to give away their sources.

Everyone is advised to return to their seats.

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  • Personally, I think using one can give a sentence a "philosophical" feel – which works fine in some cases but might read awkwardly in others. Moreover, one might also avoid the gender problem by switching to the second person; e.g.: You should always be aware of your surroundings. – J.R. Mar 21 '15 at 11:00
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    If you are uncomfortable with gender neutrality in English, don't worry, I am too. (Native speaker) This fable pretty accurately sums up my thoughts on trying to be politically correct. Write "he" and you are chauvinistic. Write "he/she" and you are trying too hard to be politically correct. Write "they" and your grammar is wrong. – James Mar 22 '15 at 0:33
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    @DJMcMayhem No, using they is grammatically correct. – tchrist Apr 17 '15 at 9:45
  • @tchrist I know it is, but some people think it isn't. – James Apr 17 '15 at 20:11
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When I wish to maintain gender neutrality I use two methods.
1) Passive voice. Instead of saying "He can use the software freely" I prefer "The software can be freely used"
2) Use a generic/neutral term to describe the person when possible. Instead of saying "He can customize the look of the software" I would say "The user can customize the look of the software."

Maybe the examples are not very representative but I hope that they are sufficient. The passive voice method sounds a bit formal so I prefer to find appropriate neutral terms to describe what I need.

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  • Still, escaping from using some problematic forms isn't always the right way. Paraphrasing your example, don't you think "The user can customize the look of the software in case they don't like it" is more preferable in terms of gender neutrality than the still vague "If the user doesn't like the look of the software... (they? he?) can customize it."? – Bebop B. Mar 21 '15 at 12:05
  • I agree that escaping, as you say, isn't always the right way. I guess it depends on the context of what you are trying to say/write. In my case, I use the suggested forms in formal or technical documents where my target is exactly to be vague and "detached". Isn't gender neutrality a form of vagueness? Still, I see your point which is valid. But context is very important in determining the most appropriate form. I don't know of any particular rule of applying gender neutrality. – Vag Mar 21 '15 at 15:52
  • @BebopB. "If the user doesn't like the look of the software, it can be customized." A mix of the two methods. – Linkyu Mar 21 '15 at 20:01
  • You're right, you could say that, but still it's relying solely on rephrasing your sentence. Fluency cannot be aquired by avoiding troublesome forms; one has to be able to tackle them. – Bebop B. Mar 21 '15 at 21:29
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The pronoun "one" is seen by some speakers as rather formal. There are people who go their whole lives and never use it. A "one" here or there is OK, but if you find yourself using too many "one"s then your style may begin to sound affected or stilted. If you are going for an informal style then you may wish to avoid "one" entirely.

Grammatically, "One should be aware of their surroundings" is generally accepted in American English, but British English requires "One should be aware of one's surroundings".

Both varieties of English accept "Everyone should be aware of their surroundings" or "Each of us should be aware of their surroundings" or "A person should be aware of their surroundings".

(A few people will still insist that it should be "his" or "his or her" rather than "their".)

Everyone is advised to return to their seats.

In my view, it should be "their seat" (rather than "seats"), because "everyone" is singular and "their" is being used as a quasi-singular. Each person has only one seat. But this is a minor quibble.

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"One" as a gender-neutral pronoun is rather formal, but more importantly it is not interchangeable with "they" or "them".

"One" is used in the third-person to make generalisations that apply to yourself and others. In common, everyday speech, we tend to use "you" instead of "one", for example:

  • One can learn a lot from books.
  • You can learn a lot from books.

Both of these mean that, in the opinion of the speaker, anyone who reads a book will learn things. Sometimes, saying "you" can seem a little pointed, depending on your use of auxiliary verb. Using 'can' makes it general, but if you said "you could learn a lot from books" it would sound like you were specifically suggesting the person you are speaking to should read more.

Use of "one" in everyday speech may be rare, but it isn't unheard of. Overuse of it would be jarring, and your example of "one should be aware of one's surroundings" sounds very formal. The common equivalent might be "you should be aware of your surroundings". Or, the other alternative is to say "people" to refer to people in general, for example:

People should be aware of their surroundings.


"They" and "them" are not used like "one" - they are used to refer to specific individuals or groups, for example:

They went to the park I went to the park with them.

These are not generalisations, but can only refer to specific people you have previously referred to by individual name or as a group.


As soon as you use a gender-specific pronoun like "he" or "she" your listener will take it as given that you have 'gendered' the individual, so do not use these unless that is your intention and you know their gender.


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