The English language has three gender-specific pronouns in the 3rd. person singular, whose declined forms are also gender-specific: he (masculine — generally used for human males), she (feminine — mostly used for human females), and it (neuter — for objects, abstractions, and most animals). The other English pronouns (I, you, they...) do not make gender distinctions, i.e., they are "gender-neutral". (See English personal pronouns.)
Notwithstanding this traditional paradigm, each of these three gender-specific pronouns has at times been used in a gender-neutral sense: see "generic usage" below.
|Subject||Object||Possessive Adjective||Possessive Pronoun||Reflexive|
|masculine||He laughed.||I kissed him.||His leg hurts.||This house is his.||He can support himself.|
|feminine||She laughed.||I kissed her.||Her arm hurts.||This house is hers.||She can support herself.|
|neuter||It is a very nice house.||I have bought it.||Its yard is big.||That cage is its.||It sells itself.|
Traditionally ships have been referred to using the feminine pronouns (even ships named after men, such as USS Barry), as well as countries and oceans. The origins of this practice are not certain, and it is currently in decline (though more common for ships, particularly in nautical usage, than for countries). In modern English, it can be said that the use of the pronoun "she" to refer to inanimate objects is an optional figure of speech.
Usage of him and his to refer to a generic member of a mixed sex group was prescribed by manuals of style and school textbooks from the early 19th century until around the 1960s. It was called 'generic' or 'universal'.
This may be compared to usage of the word man to humans in general.
Gender-specific pronouns were also prescribed when one might presume that most members of some group are the same gender.
Recently, some people also use female pronouns in a generic sense, to draw attention to feminist issues. Some authors recommend alternating between the use of the generic male and the generic female, perhaps on a per-chapter basis.
Some people use compound forms to emphasize the possibility of the referent having either sex: such as he or she, him or her, his or her or himself or herself. Any of these forms could be reversed, so as not to imply that males had priority: she or he, her or him, etc. There are also abbreviated forms, such as s/he and him/herself, but most language commentators dismiss them as unpronounceable for everyday speech. As an alternative, gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed.
When a non-specific person is being referred to, especially with indefinite constructions such as "someone," "anyone," "the person who," etc., the use of singular they has a long history, and is becoming increasingly accepted, though some writers still inveigh against it.
It is not unheard of for governments, clubs and other groups to reinterpret sentences like 'every member must take off his shoes before entering the chapel' to mean that therefore female members may not enter the chapel. Indeed, the Persons Case, the legal battle over whether Canadian women counted as legal persons eligible to sit in the Senate, partially turned on such a point.
In 1984 the Minnesota State Legislature ordered that all gender-specific language be removed from the state laws. After two years of work, the rewritten laws were adopted. Only 301 of 20,000 pronouns were feminine. "His" was changed 10,000 times and "he" was changed 6,000 times.
By contrast, the Constitution of Ireland, describes the President of Ireland throughout as 'he', yet the two most recent presidents were women; in 1997, four of the five candidates in the election were women. Efforts in a court case to argue that 'he' excluded women were dismissed by the Irish Supreme Court, which ruled the term 'gender-neutral'.
In general, transgender individuals prefer be referred to by the gender pronoun appropriate to the gender with which they identify. Some genderqueer or similarly-identified people prefer not to use either he or she, but a different pronoun such as they, zie, or so forth. Drag performers, when in costume, are usually referred to by the gender pronouns for the gender they are performing (for example, drag queens are usually called "she" when in drag).
For example, in French,
are all gender-inclusive; but
In some languages (including most modern Germanic languages) this distinction is neutralised in the plural: English and Modern Russian both have gender-inclusive forms for the third person plural pronouns: 'they'/'them' and они (oni).
Where a language has grammatical gender, like French, gendered pronouns are used according to the grammatical gender of their antecedent, as il ('he') for le livre ('the book' - masculine). But there may be gender-specific pronouns in languages where grammatical gender has otherwise been largely lost or reduced. Danish continues to distinguish gender in third person singular pronouns, even though it no longer distinguishes masculine and feminine nouns grammatically.
For some languages, such as Norwegian and Swedish, there has been considerable effort in trying to provide for gender-neutral expression.
In Norwegian a new word is proposed, hin ('sie' or 'hir') to fill the gap between the third person pronouns hun ('her') and han ('him'). Hin is used, but in limited groups; it is not yet embraced by society as a whole. One can also use man or en or den (en means 'one'). These three are considered impersonal.
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, and instead ano hito (あの人, literally 'that person') is used in those cases where a pronoun is required. Unlike Western languages, pronouns in Japanese are a type of nouns rather than a distinct class.
Nevertheless, pronouns in Japanese usually have traditionally carried a strong gender connotation (though it has somewhat weakened nowadays), even first-person ones. For instance, ore (俺 or オレ) or boku (僕 or ボク) is used as 'I'/'me' mainly by men (women have begun using boku nowadays), while watashi (私 or わたし) or atashi (あたし or アタシ) is used by females. (However, homosexuals are usually mocked in media by use of female pronouns; examples for such cases are Hard Gay and Sho Tsukioka from Battle Royale.)
Interlingua is one of two major auxiliary languages that are not constructed but are considered to be reflections of a pre-existing reality. The other is Latino sine Flexione. Occidental is sometimes placed in this group as well. Of the three languages, only Interlingua is widely spoken today.
Notice that in the plural, ili, eli and oli are used for groups of males, females and inanimate beings respectively, whereas li can be, and usually is, used instead of any of these, leaving the former exclusively when it is felt necessary to explicitly indicate the gender, as in "Viri e mulieri separesis. Ili livis ed eli restis". (Men and women split up. The former [literally "they" with an indication of masculine gender] left, and the latter [literally "they" with and indication of feminine gender] stayed).
But li is the only alternative for groups people of mixed sexes, or when the actual sex of some people cannot or will not be determined.