I've been taught that a child is gender-neutral noun. But in the textbook on linguistics I've been reading, the noun is used as feminine. For example, a sentence in the book goes like this:

The child must also learn many aspects of grammar from her specific linguistic environment.

Is there an explanation for the use of the pronoun her instead of its?

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    As far as I know, the generic singular pronoun for a third person was typically him and then him or her and then sometimes just her and then (nowadays) most often them. Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 16:33
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    Academics (certainly American academics) tend to use "she" and "her" these days. It's not gender neutrality as much as a sort of remedial action to even the score after centuries of he-ism.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 16:52
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    In the past, this would always have used "he" as the default pronoun, but this is generally not acceptable these days. Some (typically feminist) writers may only use "she", on the grounds that if using "he" exclusively is valid then so is using "she" exclusively. More normally, books are written to be gender neutral these days though. Various conventions exist for this, such as one chapter uses exclusively "he" and the next chapter uses exclusively "she", or it alternates between uses, for instance. You may well find the next pronoun is "he".
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 12:12
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    @TRomano This is most likely the case here. It is worth noting, however, that this style of writing can come off as highly immature and really should not be recommended to anyone. The correct way to write this in a gender neutral way is to simply use the third person : The child must also learn many aspects of grammar from their specific linguistic environment
    – J...
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 14:19
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    @J: I prefer the plural. Children must also learn....
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 14:33

6 Answers 6


Child is gender neutral. As a result, when referring to a child, one must then choose a pronoun he, she or they when referring to the said child, as English does not have a gender neutral way of referring to that individual. This causes a problem for writers. Whatever you choose could be wrong.

Some would write he, but that sounds sexist and presumptive. Some write they, but this does not confirm the singular as it could refer to many. As an alternative some writers have taken to using she to balance those that historically have used the masculine form.

Other writers go to great lengths to avoid any of these forms by just rewriting the sentences completely.

Stack Exchange questions and answers have the same problem. Do we refer to a writer as he, she, they...? Whatever one chooses makes implications that it may not be correct.

We almost never use it or its to refer to a child, as this form is reserved for objects and not people and thus is considered to be demeaning.

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    @V.Lydia As I said: a writer is forced to choose. A better writer will go to great lengths to avoid choosing: People discover many things about themselves when they travel. Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 17:28
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    @V.Lydia In the case of __self, we almost always use "themselves," as opposed to specifying a gender. But in general, for choosing he or she, I see writers using she or he more or less randomly, just to try to balance it out equally.
    – Alex K
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 18:05
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    Another convention used sometimes is the child learns from his/her environment. Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 19:30
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    +1 Nice post. However, I'm not sure about calling a child it. It depends on the context, the register, the formality and so on. See this interesting post Is “Is it a girl or a boy?” really calling the infant an “it”? Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 20:33
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    @V.Lydia Often writers will choose genders for two separate cases. For example, in an Ultimate Frisbee coaching manual I once read, the thrower was always he and the receiver she. This removed any real bias and was also helpful when reading. It's possible (I haven't read your textbook) the authors decided on a convention like this. Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 22:05

"Child" is, indeed, gender-neutral.

For a long time, "he" was considered to be both the male pronoun and the non-gender-specific pronoun (see Wikipedia). An older text would talk about a child learning from his environment and it would be understood to mean that both male and female children do so. "They" has a long history of use as a gender-neutral pronoun and is widely accepted, though some continue to insist that it is wrong. The use of "she" as a gender-neutral pronoun appears to be something of a backlash against the former use of "he"; it's quite common in modern writing.

Wikipedia notes that "it" is considered OK to refer to a child in situations where there's no emotional investment, especially in scientific contexts. Indeed, Wikipedia uses your very example as a case where it's reasonable to use "it". On the other hand, if I was talking about your child and said "Is it OK if I give it some candy?", you'd be fully justified in slapping me in the face or worse.

The least controversial situation is to just rephrase the sentence. For example, "they" is absolutely uncontroversially the gender-neutral plural pronoun, and the sentence you quote in your question seems to be talking about children in general, rather than a specific single child. Thus,

Children must also learn many aspects of grammar from their specific linguistic environment.

(Or, if you prefer, "linguistic environments", since not all children have the same one.)

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    While I understand the point you are making, someone calling your child "it" is never justification to slap someone in the face.
    – Floris
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 19:54
  • "It would be understood to mean that both male and female children do so," is not necessarily true. Depending on context, that might very well be ambiguous, and there have definitely been instances where women have taken what was intended to just be the "default" male to mean they weren't welcome.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 3:54

English doesn’t have “grammatical” gender at all, not even for he, she, or it. The “gender” he, she, and it refer to the actual, real-world gender of the antecedent, not its grammatical gender. In general, one would use the word she for child because this particular child is female.

Even in cases such as this, where there is no actual person (or there are several people, in a mix of genders, and the text is referring to any one), the language still refers to the hypothetical “example person” as a person, with a gender. The pronouns used, therefore, reflect the gender of the example person. Again, this is not grammatical gender.

In the past, as a matter of convention, “the example person” was always male, and thus he was used as a pronoun for the example person. More recently, the example person will sometimes be written as female, that is, with she. Some authors will also use both roughly equally (though they can only switch when introducing a new example person; for clarity, any person who is supposed to be some consistent example individual could not switch genders).

The reason for this is simple: by having the example person consistently be male, you give the impression that all of the people involved are male. It has not always been clear when male was chosen by convention, or because the individual under discussion actually is expected to be male. Switching to female does not fix the ambiguity, but at least it makes things more even: by having everything use male examples, it gives the impression that men do everything.

Finally, it is not gender-neutral, it is the gender-specific pronoun for the neuter gender, that is, the gender of inanimate objects. It is almost-always inappropriate, if not exceedingly offensive, to refer to a person with it as it implies that he or she is not a person, or not even a living thing.

  • So, when,for example I'm referring to the speaker of a poem and the gender is not clear, what do you think I should write? Is writing "he or she" a solution?
    – V.Lydia
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 18:05
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    @V.Lydia In formal contexts, I believe he or she is still the recommendation of most published style guides. As I recall, both the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) recommend it in their widely-used style guides. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab has some discussion of the issues relating to such cases; the OWL was recommended to me in college (and I did not attend Purdue) for guidance in formal writing.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 18:36
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    @V.Lydia A revival of the singular they, however, is also catching on even in formal contexts. And in informal contexts, the singular they has been widely used for a long time, and there are also a wide variety of other options, including various proposed additions to the language to be used as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun (none of which have garnered much wide acceptance). Wikipedia has a pretty good article on gender-specific and gender-neutral pronouns.
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 18:38

The word child is indeed gender-neutral. In fact, really English as a whole doesn't have grammatical gender. All that matters is the gender of the actual person that it is referring to.

If the child being referred to is a boy, then you use he. If the child is a girl, you use she.

If the writer is not really referring to a specific child (as in this example), then you have a problem. Traditionally, writers used the male he. In modern English, that implies that all children are male unless otherwise specified, which smacks of sexism. Some use the wordy he or she. Others use just she, as a sort of corrective to centuries of assuming maleness. Still others borrow they to refer to a single generic person.

Of course, it's also possible to rewrite the sentence in the plural.

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    This just duplicates existing answers. Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 0:46
  • @DavidRicherby I think my answer provides a more concise and organized presentation of the ideas. A reference to grammatical gender in general is, I think, important, and the accepted answer does not provide this. Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 1:39

From historic perspective, it used to be an appropriate pronoun for a child.


This is similar to other Germanic languages that have grammatical gender (which has degenerated in English except rare cases like ship-she), like German "das Kind" or Dutch "het kind".

Modern connotation of the neutral pronoun in American English seems to have changed as other responses note.


Child is not gender neutral, but it is gender normative. In modern English it is gender neutral, but it depends upon its use and more importantly it derives from kilþei a Gothic word for Womb. It entered Old English with a female gender moniker and retained it only until the onset of Modern English. Arguably, Child/Cild is thus feminine in gender reference especially within given contexts referencing pregnancy. While it has been made neuter through over usage.

This reflects the gender bias but gender normative nature of the word "guys". While masculine in nature and in its original usage, it has also gained a neutral usage.

  • If the gender isn't recognised you will have to use "its". Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 4:30
  • "Its"is used for a young child when the gender isn't recognised. Well in your sentence , there must be a picture or any drawing photo, that's what the writer is specially pointing it out. Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 4:34
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    I'm confused as to what you want to say, here. It seems you're answering about ancient forms of English word? Why would they be relevant? You say that in modern English it's "gender neutral". That contradicts the ideas that it "is not gender neutral" or that it is "arguably ... feminine in gender reference". Did you mean to say that historically, it was not gender neutral?
    – Dan Getz
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 4:44
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    Particularly on the Learners' site, it's important to note that the origin of a word does not necessarily enforce or even inform its present-day usage.
    – choster
    Commented Jan 4, 2016 at 23:47
  • @magsi Beware that "it" in English has the very clear implication that "it" is not a person. (See also Silence of the Lambs: "It rubs the lotion on its skin".) A parent may justifiably be offended by this. Unfortunately of course it usually isn't clear what gender a baby is, which makes this a bit of a social minefield.
    – Graham
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 16:41

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