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I was checking out this link when I came across this idiom (#23):

When you show the moon to a child, it only sees your finger.

So my question is should not there be he/she instead of it and if that is correct what is the context of it being used here.

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Evidently, the poster's creator thought he/she would have looked or read awkwardly, and was trying to skirt the gender issue.

English has a few different ways to deal with this problem. Besides he/she, you could simply choose he or she (though some might feel that choosing one or the other makes the quote seem exclusionary):

When you show the moon to a child, she only sees your finger.

Other times, the singular they is used. (Some grammatical purists might disapprove, but such disapproval seems to be waning):

When you show the moon to a child, they only see your finger.

You could use the child, but some might find the repetition a bit clunky:

When you show the moon to a child, the child only sees your finger.

Another way to address this is to pluralize child, and thus use the more gender-neutral they:

When you show the moon to children, they only see your finger.

Faced with these alternatives (all of which have pros and cons), the writer opted to use it.


Is that acceptable English? I found this statement in an answer on ELU:

I'm afraid it would be wrong. You should never use it to refer to people, except perhaps when the word you are referring to is child and its sex unknown.

Wikipedia says:

The word and term 'it' can be used for either a subject or an object in a sentence and can describe any physical or psychological subject and/or object. The genitive form its has been used to refer to human babies and animals, although with the passage of time this usage has come to be considered too impersonal in the case of babies, as it may be thought to demean a conscious being to the status of a mere object.

Grammatically, I suppose using it might be deemed acceptable (since we are dealing with a child of unknown gender), but its usage would at least raise some eyebrows. Had I made the poster, I probably would have used this version:

When you show the moon to a child, the child only sees your finger.

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  • Related quote, from Your Dictionary: Sometimes rewriting a sentence may help, but unfortunately you will at some point be forced to make a choice between sexist, clunky, or technically incorrect!
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 7:30
  • The 'it for children' case is, IMHO, only valid when the child is too small to identify the gender, so that you can ask "what's it's name?", and from that you can usually infer the gender. At the age where pointing at the moon might be worth trying, you should be able to identify the gender by observation.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 9:24
  • @JavaLatte - Sure, I agree with that. But in this case, you're not really showing any particular child the moon; it's just a maxim (like "Give a man a fish..."), so there's no way to know the gender of the hypothetical child.
    – J.R.
    Commented Mar 11, 2016 at 12:39
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English does not have a pronoun meaning he or she. "It" is really not correct use of English, but is as close as a pronoun can get. When translating you're given freedom to not translate word for word but rather to translate the meaning as accurately as possible. So a better translation would be "When you show the moon to a child, the child only sees your finger." I'm not sure about the translation of show, I'd be tempted to make the translation be "When you point out the moon to a child, the child only sees your finger."

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