Areas of Advice

  • No categories

The Advice Archive

Gender-neutral pronouns

Original text taken from Wikipedia and modified for relevance to T-Vox users.

Gender-neutral or epicene pronouns are pronouns that neither reveal nor imply the gender or the sex of a person.


In English, the only gender-specific pronouns are in the third-person singular: he/she, him/her, him/herself, his/hers. The third-person plural pronouns they, them, themselves, their, and theirs work equally well for either sex. Hence, the term “gender-neutral pronoun” refers specifically to third-person singular personal pronouns.

In the nominative or accusative case, the pronoun one is often used. In speech, other locutions are used in the same role, for example a person, a fellow, a soul.

When a speaker does not know or does not want to specify a person’s sex, this can be a problem. Common solutions include singular they, generic he (aka ‘legal he’ due to British statutes historically being drafted only in male pronouns), one, generic you, circumlocutions such as he or she, using he and she in alternate passages, and rewording sentences to avoid pronouns. The latter is sometimes referred to as the “pronoun game” when used to avoid stating a person’s gender.
There were two gender neutral pronouns native to English, ou and a, but they have long since died out, save for minor use in some British dialects. According to Dennis Baron’s Grammar and Gender:

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular ou : “‘Ou will’ expresses either he will, she will, or it will.” Marshall traces ou to Middle English epicene a, used by the fourteenth-century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of a for he, she, it, they, and even I.

The dialectal epicene pronoun a is a reduced form of the Old and Middle English masculine and feminine pronouns he and heo. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the masculine and feminine pronouns had developed to a point where, according to the OED, they were “almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation.” The modern feminine pronoun she, which first appears in the mid twelfth century, seems to have been drafted at least partly to reduce the increasing ambiguity of the pronoun system….

Baron goes on to describe how relics of these sex-neutral terms survive in some British dialects of Modern English, and sometimes a pronoun of one gender might be applied to a person or animal of the opposite gender. [source]

The 3rd-person singular personal pronouns in English: he, she, it, and singular they.

Below them are paradigms of the best known neologisms, none of which are used in spoken English.

Subject Object Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
Male He laughed I hit him His face bled I am his He shaves himself
Female She laughed I hit her Her face bled I am hers She shaves herself
It It laughed I hit it Its face bled I am its It shaves itself
Singular they They laughed I hit them Their face bled I am theirs They shave themself
Spivak E laughed I hit em Eir face bled I am eirs E shaves emself
Spivak (alternative) Ey laughed I hit em Eir face bled I am eirs Ey shaves eirself
Sie and hir Sie laughed I hit hir Hir face bled I am hirs Sie shaves hirself
Xe Xe laughed I hit xem Xyr face bled I am xyrs Xe shaves xemself
Ve Ve laughed I hit ver Vis face bled I am vis Ve shaves verself

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is often interpreted by non-linguists to mean that people will be less sexist if they don’t distinguish gender in pronouns or other aspects of speech. However, patriarchal societies that speak genderless languages, such as the Chinese, demonstrate that gender-specific language is not the sole cause of sexism.

Other languages

Modern Chinese

There is no gender distinction in pronouns in the spoken language: The pronoun 他 (tā) means “he” or “she”. However, around the time of the May Fourth Movement, a new written form 她 of the pronoun was created to specifically represent “she”, and 他 is now often restricted to meaning “he”. This language reform was part of a “modernisation” movement, and copied from European languages. Sometimes in writing 他/她 is even used to mean “he/she”, but many stylists consider this to be unnecessarily cumbersome.

Both pronouns are pronounced identically; the difference appears only in writing.


In common usage, the Esperanto pronouns ŝi, li, and ĝi correspond to English she, he, and it. Although the author, Zamenhof, recommended using ĝi in cases of unstated gender, this is done infrequently. The gender-neutral demonstrative pronoun tiu is commonly used instead (a usage that does not occur in English). Reformers have coined gender-neutral pronouns like ri or ŝli specifically for persons, and “riism” has in fact made some limited progress.

The major reform project Ido introduced of a specifically gender-neutral pronoun, lu, which can mean “he“, “she“, and “it” (both animate and inanimate).


Like other Finno-Ugric languages, Finnish pronouns make no distinction between male and female. The Finnish third-person singular personal pronoun (he/she) is hän. In colloquial use this is often replaced with se (literally meaning ‘it‘), as hän is perceived as overly formal.


The French singular indefinite pronoun on, like English one, makes no reference to gender. On is commonly used in the sense of a first-person plural pronoun.


The German language has 3 grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The third person singular personal pronouns are gender-specific (“er”, “sie” and “es” meaning “he”, “she” and “it”, respectively). The plural form of personal pronouns (“they” or in German “sie”) is gender-neutral.

Of possesive, reflecive, relative and demonstrative pronouns, all singular forms are gender-specific while all plural forms are gender-neutral. Interrogative pronouns (“wer”, “wessen”, “wem”, “wen”, “welchen” and “was für einen” / “who”, “whose”, “whom”, “who”, “which” and “what kind”) and indefinite pronouns “jemand” and “niemand” (“somebody” and “nobody”) are gender-neutral.

All pronouns (except interrogative) can be declined into one of 4 cases, showing their state as subject, possesion, direct or indirect object in the sentence. Case declination is gender-specific.


Since Hungarian does not have any grammatical gender, all personal pronouns (the third person singular being “ő”, which stands for both the English he and she, as well as it) are gender-neutral. E.g.: övé(his/hers/its), vele(with him/her/it), érte(for him/her/it), etc.


Written Japanese underwent a transition similar to Chinese when an archaic demonstrative kare (彼) was resurrected to translate the “he” of European languages, while a word kanojo (彼女) was invented to translate “she”. In the spoken language, the words carry the connotation of boyfriend and girlfriend respectively. Japanese does not have third-person personal pronouns, with either names, titles, or phrases such as ano hito (that person) used instead.


In some dialects of the Swedish language there is a word hän that means either han (him) or hon (her). It has spread to hacker slang. Some more common gender-neutral pronouns however are hen (he/she) and henom (him/her). The Swedish Language Council recommends den (it) for third person singular of indefinite gender.


Tagalog has no gender distinction in grammar, so the third person pronoun siya can mean either he or she. This is the case with all of the languages of the Philippines and perhaps other Austronesian languages.


The respectful/plural third-person Tamil pronoun “avar” can be used to refer to a gender-neutral third person. The pronoun “athu”, generally used for objects and animals (similar to “that” in English) and considered derogatory when used for a person, is sometimes used in slang and informal conversations in a humorous way.


In the hypothetical Indo-European language, there are some reconstructed terms for certain gender-neutral pronouns.
*Tu – Thou
*Te – Thee
*Iuh – Ye
*Wos – You
*Se – Third person pronoun

See also

  • Androgynous pronoun
  • Gender-neutral language

External links