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What should I use in this sentence?

If he were a girl, I would have kissed him/her.

Should I refer to the real gender of the person or the one I'm assuming the person to be and why?

Edit : Recent developments on this question has influenced me to start a bounty on the question. It's really confusing me as the answers are contradicting but still have credible sources to support them.

  • 12
    Logically him. – V.V. May 18 '16 at 9:04
  • 7
    I think "him" sounds better in that sentence. It would feel jarring to have the gender change within a single sentence. Where a person's gender really has changed (that is, when you are talking about a transgender person) you use the pronoun that applies to their current gender, but that sentence isn't implying that it is likely that he will actually become a girl, it is just saying what you'd have done if he were already a girl. – nnnnnn May 18 '16 at 9:07
  • 4
    It's a supposition based on the gender of that person changing. The imagined person in that supposition is female. So it should be 'her'. – AJFaraday May 18 '16 at 15:29
  • 2
    @AJFaraday You seem to disagree with all of the existing answers - would you like to post an answer of your own? – Tin Man May 18 '16 at 16:37
  • 3
    Given the current social debates in the United States, you're likely to get criticized by at least 2 separate groups for your word choice here, regardless of what you choose or what you mean to say by it. Brace thyself. – elmer007 May 18 '16 at 19:35

11 Answers 11

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+50

In my personal opinion, you should use 'him' and here's why:

"If I were a cup, where would I hide?"

Now, the subject is thinking of a hypothetical situation where he is a cup. Now, if that sentence was spoken from the perspective of the cup, then it would be:

"If I were a cup, where would it hide?"

Not that the gender has to do anything with an animate and inanimate object, but I think it works out in the same way as this example.

Also, the stress is on the improbability of the situation. "If he were...", but he is not a 'she' at the point of reference. So the subject is still a 'he', so you should refer the subject as a "him".

Note: This may not be a perfect explanation, but for me, the comparison works.

  • 19
    "Now, if that sentence was spoken from the perspective of the cup" - From the perspective of the cup it doesn't make sense to say "If I were a cup", because it is a cup - it doesn't make sense for a cup to imagine being what it already is. But if a cup was to talk about itself it would say I, not it, for the same reason that I don't talk about myself in the third person. – nnnnnn May 18 '16 at 13:24
  • 3
    That's really a nice explanation but I still have a doubt. I can rephrase the sentence like If he were a girl, I would have kissed that girl. Now If I were to replace "that girl", I'd choose "her". Right? – 7_R3X May 18 '16 at 14:38
  • 1
    @7_R3X The fact remains that this person is not a girl. Even though you're talking about this boy hypothetically being a girl, he is not, so you still use the male pronoun. Your other example "If he were a girl, I would have kissed that girl" sounds wrong to me as a native speaker of English. I would wonder who that girl you were talking about was, I thought we were talking about him. If this person did actually become a girl, then you would use "her." – Nathan K May 18 '16 at 18:09
  • 6
    I don't buy this explanation at all. If you were a cup you'd still be you, and "I" would still be valid. First-person pronouns and whatnot don't change depending on whether you're a human or a cup. – Lightness Races with Monica May 19 '16 at 13:54
  • 1
    I think the conclusion is reasonable (I prefer he in this situation), but I do not think this comparison is valid at all. An animate neuter object capable of thought would still use I to refer to itself. – KRyan May 24 '16 at 13:54
20

You should use 'him' as that matches the subject of the speculation, which is 'he.'

The antecedent of the pronoun 'him' in this case just happens to be another pronoun 'he'.

To illustrate:

If he were a girl, he would take over the world.

This does not work as well if the gender of the pronoun changes, as with the sentence:

If he were a girl, she would take over the world.

With the second example, at least some readers may be confused and left wondering who 'she' is.

14

I stand corrected. I posted an earlier answer saying that you should use "she," (which I think makes some sense)

Nonetheless, a corpus search shows that the correct use is not changing the gender:

See more at Google Books.

The inverse use is also consistent:

(Google Books)

  • @Catija I still think my reasoning had merit, but it seems usage disagrees with me, so I've swapped sides. – Azor Ahai May 19 '16 at 1:51
  • 2
    +1 First rule of English: English doesn't follow logic, or rules ;-) – user56reinstatemonica8 May 19 '16 at 15:32
  • @Azor-Ahai Not all modern usage disagrees with your original opinion! See my answer regarding Jonathan Franzen. – Alan Carmack May 20 '16 at 1:53
  • 1
    Sorry, by "they," I meant learners. Of course there's no English Academy making rules, I meant more that most people should follow conventions set by the English-speaking community, but rules can always be broken, and that great authors do so regularly. – Azor Ahai May 20 '16 at 18:22
  • 1
    I vote for this being the right answer, as it is grammatically correct, and uses corpus linguistics to prove the point. This is what the correct, accepted usage is. Could you still be understood if you chose to break the convention? Yes. But this is the convention as defined by the majority of writers of the language. – Paul Pehrson May 25 '16 at 20:41
9

Great American Novelist* Jonathan Franzen goes with the hypothetical in his 2015 novel Purity:

If Colleen had been a boy, Pip would have slept with him.

–Page 251, Purity: A Novel, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

See on Google Books

Both Colleen and Pip are female characters.

Based on this usage, the rendition of your sentence would have her–going against every answer here, with all their astute reasonings!

Franzen is one of today's leading authors of serious fiction. Thus, I'll be so bold as to say I doubt that there is a right or wrong here.

A rewrite of the sentence could follow the pattern of one you suggest in a comment:

If Colleen had been a boy, Pip would have slept with that (hypothetical) boy.

A way to look at this is that the entire sentence (not just the if clause) is hypothetical (or irrealis), thus in the realm of the hypothetical the person is of the opposite gender and should be referred to as the hypothetical gender. (This is my thought, not Franzen's or his publisher's.) Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), a subsidiary of MacMillan, is a highly respected publisher.

"Farrar, Straus and Giroux authors have won extraordinary acclaim over the years, including numerous National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and twenty-two Nobel Prizes in literature."


* Time Magazine

  • 3
    Great American Novelists get to do all kinds of things I wouldn't recommend to someone learning English, but in this particular case I think you've shown there is some subtlety in the "rules" for gender-swapping pronouns. I wonder if Franzen would still have written him if the earlier reference to Colleen had used the pronoun she instead of a proper name. I don't think it's obvious that he would have, but I can't be sure that he wouldn't have. – David K May 20 '16 at 12:48
  • 1
    I prefer to teach learners what native speakers say, as opposed to what certain people think they should say. Language is an art form, rife with creativity. If Shakespeare had followed the rules, English would be much much the poorer for it. @DavidK – Alan Carmack May 20 '16 at 16:55
  • 1
    I'm not talking about sticking to some rigid rules in some old grammar book. The point is, the reason the example in this answer is a good one is that we can recognize it as the kind of thing that native speakers would ordinarily write, not because it was penned by a Great American Novelist. There are other things written by Great American Novelists that would be very poor examples to give someone to follow unless the question is something like, "How can I make my writing sound like Virginia Woolf?" – David K May 20 '16 at 20:56
6

You would use "him". The word you pick is going to be the object of the sentence and "he" is part of the qualifier for the object so the pronouns should agree. To see this you can restructure the sentence as:

I would kiss him if he were a girl.

To address your question on Varun's answer: you can see why "that girl" is incorrect by restructuring the sentence as:

I would kiss that girl if he were a girl.

Which is incorrect and confusing.

  • But: I would kiss her, if he were (in fact) a girl works for me. – Alan Carmack May 25 '16 at 4:36
  • @AlanCarmack That reads in a clunky way though. At least to me, it doesn't read naturally or sound right. – Jake May 25 '16 at 14:20
5

The form of a pronoun is determined by the pronoun's antecedent. The antecedent is the word (or words) to which the pronoun refers.

If he were a girl, I would have kissed ___.

The antecedent of the pronoun "he" does not appear in this sentence. If this sentence had occurred as an integral part of a longer passage, the antecedent would likely have appeared in the previous sentence.

The pronoun that we want to put in the blank space, however, has an antecedent earlier in the same sentence. As shown by many examples in published literature, that antecedent is "he", not "girl". The pronoun that fits in the blank is therefore "him". It's not very much different in that way from the sentence,

If he were not a boy, I would have kissed him.


It may be of interest to observe that in longer passages, it often is possible for a pronoun of one gender to be used earlier in the passage to refer to the "same" person as a pronoun of the opposite gender later in the passage. Here's an example from a recent opinion piece in Rolling Stone:

... If Trump were a woman, running for the GOP nomination, he'd have damn near zero percent of the vote.

Imagine if Donald Trump were Donna Trump, who inherited wealth from her father, drove multiple businesses into bankruptcy and then used her fame to become a big-mouthed reality-TV star.

In the first sentence, the pronoun is still "he", because despite the hypothetical gender implied by the words "were a woman", the antecedent of the pronoun is "Trump", which was previously established to be the name of a man. But in the second sentence, we are introduced to the female character "Donna Trump, who inherited wealth from her father". In that sentence, "who" is relative to "Donna Trump" and is also the antecedent of "her". Although "Donna Trump" is still clearly intended to be the same person Donald Trump would have been "[i]f Trump were a woman," she has been introduced by a female name, not by a pronoun, and therefore can be the antecedent of female pronouns.

1

Other answers quote examples, but there seems to be examples for both possible answers, so maybe the answer is "it depends...".

But on what?

It seems to me that it depends on the impression that the speaker wants to give. To borrow Varun KN's example, consider the following two sentences.

If I were her cup, she would kiss me every time she took a sip.

If I were her cup, she would kiss it every time she took a sip.

Both of these are, in my opinion, grammatically correct, but the meaning is worlds apart. The first conveys a strong impression of somebody in love: they would even be willing to be a cup, just to be touched by her lips. On the other hand, the second is a prosaic description of a mechanical process- lip meets cup.

Looking at the sentence in the question, we don't really have any background for the reason why the speaker wanted to kiss him, but we know that this is a real situation that happened in the past (would have) and we know that the speaker did not kiss him- because he is male. The appropriate pronoun is therefore him.

If he were a girl, I would have kissed him.

Let's change the scene a little, and imagine that the speaker sees somebody like thisattractive man

The speaker finds him very attractive: they don't normally go for men, so they really wish that this guy were a girl, because they can imagine kissing those lips. Omit the have to make it an ongoing wish, and we have:

If he were a girl, I would kiss her

The speaker is visualising this attractive man as an equally attractive girl, and they really would like to kiss her, so the appropriate pronoun is her.

0

If he were a girl, i would kiss him
you would refer to the real gender as your not assuming their gender, the person is real, which is what you would say, not the imaginative gender.
Its like walking in a supermarket and an attractive guy walks the other way and you may think to your self "If he were a girl, i would kiss him"
If you wanted to say 'her' then the sentence would be "If he he were a girl, i would kiss that girl" because you are referring to the 'transformed' person

Hope this helps

-1

The correct word here is "him", as noted by other answers. But it seems to have some paradoxical feeling to it.

English is gender specific, which reflects cultural concepts and ideas passing in English-speakers' brains; it's hard to escape the question "would it be a boy or a girl that he would be kissing?"... And culturally, it is an important question: it brings about people's attitude towards transsexualism, homosexuality, and gender.

If you want to stress the cultural thing and make people aware of the dilemma, then using "her" instead might actually be a good idea! It might be regarded as grammatically incorrect, but language is a tool to express ideas and feelings.

If you want to avoid the confusion and paradoxical feeling, you may be able to use a more neutral phrasing:

If it were a girl, I would have kissed her.

This has a different feeling - a completely different hypothetical person, instead of the same person having the opposite sex, so it's "more natural"; however, it might not be fit what you're trying to express.

-1

So let us take the gender out of the equation by giving examples on both sides.

If he were a girl, I would have kissed him.

If she was a boy, she would have a mustache.

IMHO, the start of the sentence dictates the end for consistency sake. If you start with "he", and it was correct at that juncture, it remains valid for the rest of the sentence no matter what the sentence says. Hope this helps.

-2

Contrary to most answers, I would suggest using the gender neutral, singular them:

If he were a girl, I would have kissed them.

Alternatively, to avoid the confusion of changing "he" to "them", you could also do this:

If they were a girl, I would have kissed them.

For more on singular "they" see these two articles:

  • Singular they is normally fine, but changing the way you refer to someone from definite to indefinite is ... confusing, at best. – Nathan Tuggy May 21 '16 at 9:02
  • @NathanTuggy For a person changing gender in the same sentence is itself confusing at best, and the singular "they" allows to neatly deal with this confusing situation. I don't think this deserves a downvote. – landroni May 21 '16 at 12:25
  • @NathanTuggy I also added an alternative that avoids the confusing change from "he" to "them". – landroni May 21 '16 at 14:23

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