Gender-neutral pronoun

Gender-neutral, gender-inclusive or epicene pronouns are pronouns that neither reveal nor imply the gender or sex of a person. Androgynous pronouns are pronouns that can refer to neither or both genders.

All languages allow the speaker to specify whether one is talking about a male or female, but some languages do not require the speaker to make that choice as an intrinsic part of the language. In such languages, all pronouns are "gender-neutral".

In some languages — notably most Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic and Niger-Congo languages — some personal pronouns intrinsically distinguish male from female; the selection of a pronoun necessarily specifies, at least to some extent, the gender of what is referred to. Most such languages only distinguish gender in the third person. Outside the Afro-Asiatic family (where it is normal to have gender distinctions in at least the second person, as in Arabic and Hausa) there are only a handful of languages with gender distinctions in other persons. Since at least 1795, some people have felt this requirement to be unsatisfactory (see Gender-neutral language) and there have been attempts to devise sets of pronouns which do not require the speaker to make the distinction, since sometime around 1850. These are what is usually meant by gender-neutral pronouns.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is often interpreted to mean that people will be less sexist if they do not distinguish gender in pronouns or other aspects of speech. Patriarchal societies with genderless languages, such as the Chinese, demonstrate that gendered pronouns are not a prerequisite for inequality to exist.

Gender markedness

Traditionally, the masculine form has been taken to be the markless form, that is the form to be used unless it is known to be inappropriate. This has dictated the masculine pronoun in cases such as

  • reference to an indefinite person, for example: "If anybody comes, tell him…"
  • reference to a group containing men and women, for example Vos parents, sont-ils arrivés ? ("Your parents, have they arrived?")

It is this property which has mostly led to the call for gender-neutral pronouns: the fact that the masculine form is used both for masculine referents, and also for those where the gender is unknown, irrelevant, or mixed.


In English:

  • The gender-specific pronouns are the personal pronouns of the third-person singular: 'he'/'him'/'himself'/'his' (for male persons or possessors), 'she'/'her'/'herself'/'hers' (for female persons or possessors), and 'it'/'itself'/'its' (for neither).
  • The third-person plural pronouns 'they', 'them', 'themselves', 'their', and 'theirs' work equally well for either sex and are androgynous.
  • Using 'he or she' is often cumbersome and therefore many find it preferable to choose one pronoun, even if it is not neutral.

A speaker may not know or may want to avoid specifying a person's gender. Frequently, when one wishes to refer to a single definite person androgynously with a pronoun in the third person, the masculine pronoun is used. Since at least the 15th century 'they', 'them' and 'their' have sometimes been used, but in a limited fashion, as singular pronouns. This is called the singular 'they'.

Other common solutions include the generic 'she', the (somewhat-formal) pronoun 'one', the generic 'you', circumlocutions such as 'he or she', punctuational devices such as "he/she", written devices such as "s/he", alternating use of either 'he' or 'she' in alternate passages, or rewording of sentences to avoid singular pronouns entirely (sometimes introducing a "disagreement in number" grammatical error, when the antecedent of "they" is a singular term such as "anybody" or "someone"). (See pronoun game.) Recently, some have suggested the introduction of contractions like 'e (for he or she) or 's (for his/hers) or h' (for him/her in object case), and even 'self (for himself/herself), to indicate the gender-neutrality of a pronoun when there is no intent to be gender-specific in the singular.

Gender-neutral pronouns used in Middle English

Historically, there were two gender neutral pronouns native to English dialects, 'ou' and 'a', but they have long since died out. 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 14th 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. This "a" is a reduced form of the Anglo-Saxon he = "he" and heo = "she". By the 12th and 13th centuries, these had often weakened 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.

New pronouns in English

In Middle English, when the Old English masculine pronoun he and feminine pronoun heo came to sound virtually identical, speakers adopted a new pronoun she to serve the societal need for a feminine pronoun. Probably, the etymology of she derived from an alteration of the Old English feminine form of the demonstrative pronoun: seo 'that' one. In Middle English, the new feminine pronoun she seems to have been intentionally artificial, to fulfill the linguistic need. By analogy in Modern English, the same method to form a new gender-neutral pronoun from the demonstrative pronoun 'that', or some alteration of it, would resemble as follows.

Nominative (subject) Accusative (object) Possessive adjective Possessive pronoun Reflexive
He/She He/She laughed I called him/her His/her eyes gleam That is his/hers He/She likes himself/herself
That That laughed I called that That's eyes gleam That is that's That likes thatself


Some groups and individuals have used non-standard pronouns, hoping they will become standard. Various proposals for such changes have been around since at least the 19th century. The American Heritage Book of English Usage says of these efforts:

Here are the third person singular personal pronouns in English: he, she, it; also the indefinite personal pronoun one and "singular" they. Below them are examples of the better known neologisms.

Nominative (subject) Accusative (object) Possessive adjective Possessive pronoun Reflexive
He He laughed I called him His eyes gleam That is his He likes himself
She She laughed I called her Her eyes gleam That is hers She likes herself
It It laughed I called it Its eyes gleam That is its It likes itself
One One laughed I called one One's eyes gleam That is one's One likes oneself
Singular they They laughed I called them Their eyes gleam That is theirs They like themself/themselves
Co Co laughed I called co Cos eyes gleam That is cos Co likes coself
Spivak (new) Ey laughed I called em Eir eyes gleam That is eirs Ey likes emself
Spivak (old) E laughed I called em Eir eyes gleam That is eirs E likes eirself
S/he S/he laughed I called him/her His/her eyes gleam That is his/hers S/he likes him/herself
Sie and hir Sie laughed I called hir Hir eyes gleam That is hirs Sie likes hirself
xe Xe laughed I called xem Xyr eyes gleam That is xyrs Xe likes xemself
Ve Ve laughed I called ver Vis eyes gleam That is vis Ve likes verself
Ze and mer Ze laughed I called mer Zer eyes gleam That is zer Ze likes zemself
Ze (or zie) and hir Ze laughed I called hir Hir eyes gleam That is hirs Ze likes hirself
Tey Tey /teɪ/ laughed I called tem /təm/ Tes /təz/ eyes gleam That is tes /tɛz/ Tey likes temself /tɛmsɛlf/
Zie Zie laughed I called zir Zir eyes gleam That is zirs Zie likes zirself
E E laughed I called het Het eyes gleam That is hets E likes hetself
Thon Thon laughed I called thon Thons eyes gleam That is thon's Thon likes thonself
Shey Shey laughed I called shem Shis eyes gleam That is shis Shey likes shemself
'e 'E laughed I called h' 's eyes gleam That is 's Does 'e like h'self

The gender-neutral pronoun "co" is used in contemporary everyday language by the 100 people who live at Twin Oaks Community in Virginia, USA. It is used to mean "s/he" in the case in which the gender is not known or is irrelevant.

There are also reports of students in Baltimore consistently using "yo" as a gender-neutral pronoun.

Traditionally gender-neutral languages


In Indonesian/Malay there is no grammatical gender.

Dia means:
and often also:


Despite the fact that it possesses a very large and complex pronominal system, Standard Bengali makes no difference in gender in any of its pronouns. Pronouns are differentiated in terms of person, number, social relationship (intimate vs. familiar vs. formal), and proximity to the speaker (proximal vs. distal vs. non-present).


In modern Chinese, there is no gender distinction in pronouns in the spoken language: the pronoun 他 () 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 sometimes restricted to meaning 'he'. This language reform was part of a 'modernisation' movement, and copied from European languages. In writing, 他/她 is used to mean 'he'/'she' (in that order), 它 () to mean 'it' (objects), 牠 () to refer to animals and 祂 () to denote God. These pronouns are pronounced identically; the difference appears only in writing. With the exception of 它, each of these pronouns is formed from a radical that indicates the nature of its object. 他 is formed from 人 (''rén''), meaning person; 她 is formed from 女 (''nǚ''), meaning woman; 牠 is formed from 牛 (''niú''), meaning cow; and 祂 is formed from 示 (''shì''), meaning revelation. 他 is accordingly considered by many Chinese speakers to be properly generic, since the antonym to 她 would be formed using the radical for man, 男 (''nán''), and not that for person, 人 (''rén''). At present, a specifically male pronoun formed from 男 and 也 is not in use. The Cantonese third person singular pronoun is keui5. In written Cantonese, the character most commonly used to record this is ; it may be used to refer to people of either gender. The practice of replacing the "亻" radical with "女" (forming the character ) to specifically indicate the female gender may also be seen occasionally in informal writing; however, this is neither widely accepted nor grammatically or semantically required, and, unlike 佢, the character 姖 has a separate meaning in standard Chinese.


The national language of the Philippines only has gender neutral pronouns; siya is used for all people, and occasionally animals. The pronoun ito (it) is used for objects.

Uralic Languages

Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are Finno-Ugric that belong to the Uralic languages family of languages (thus not Indo-European) languages. All pronouns are gender-neutral. The third-person singular and plural personal pronouns are hän and he in Finnish, tema and nemad in Estonian and ő and ők in Hungarian, respectively, which always refer to persons or animals.

In the last few decades the Finnish spoken language has also moved in this direction. The third-person singular and plural are, respectively, se and ne, which according to the written language specifications refer to an inanimate object or an animal. Thus, at a time when English is moving towards gender-neutrality, Finnish is moving to species-neutrality.


Georgian, a South Caucasian language, has gender-neutral pronouns.


Japanese does not have pronouns in the Indo-European sense, but does have nouns that are similar to pronouns. For example, kare (彼、かれ) and kanojo (彼女、かのじょ) can be used for 'he' and 'she', but also can mean 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend, depending on context. Ano hito (あの人) (literally 'that person') and similar phrases are probably more common; also it is common to refer to a person by title or affiliation, e.g. bu-cho (部長) ('manager') or Hitachi-san ('the person from Hitachi'). In general, Japanese avoids pronouns when they can be determined from context, and often uses a person's name where English would use a pronoun, sometimes even referring to oneself by name rather than by watakushi (私) ('I' or 'private').

The English titles of 'Mr', 'Mrs', 'Miss', 'Ms' are all handled by -san (さん) or the more polite -sama (様). There are some male-only suffices, such as -dono (殿), but they are rare in modern usage.

There is a distinction between animate and inanimate, but this is restricted to the verbs that mean 'to exist': iru/oru (居る) (animate) and aru (在る) (inanimate) and does not extend to pronouns. There is no equivalent of 'it'; instead something like 'that thing' (ano mono あのもの) would be used, although often the subject or topic would be left out and determined from context.

Japanese does have different styles of speech for men and women (linguistic theses have been written about these), so it is not correct to say that the language is gender-neutral. However, for the equivalent of pronouns and titles, the language is essentially gender-neutral. This seems to be fairly deep in the semantics -- it is very common to hear even very good English-speaking Japanese native speakers to mix up 'he' and 'she' (Chinese native speakers are also prone to such mistakes).


Before modernization, in Korean 그 (geu) meant 'he', 'she', and 'it' like Chinese . But in Modern Korean geu usually means 'he'. 그녀 (geu-nyeo) with the suffix -녀(女, -nyeo) meaning woman, is used for 'she'. 그것 (geu-geot) means 'it'.

Sometimes geu-nyeo means more than 'she' as pronoun, because the word geu is also used to show definiteness, like the article 'the' in English.


In Nahuatl all pronouns and pronoun affixes are independent of gender.


The Persian language has no trace of grammatical gender: 'he',' she', and 'it' are all expressed by the same pronoun u. This lack of specification has allowed for fluidity in reading the gender of both human lovers and the divine beloved in Persian poetry.

Turkic Languages

All Turkish pronouns, like the other members in the family of Turkic languages, are gender-inclusive. The English pronouns 'he', 'she', and 'it' all correspond to the only Turkish third-person singular personal pronoun o.

Romance languages

The choice of possessive pronoun in many Romance languages is determined by the grammatical gender of the possessed object; the gender of the possessor is not explicit. For instance, in French the possessive pronouns are sa for a feminine object, and son for a masculine object: son livre can mean either 'his book' or 'her book'; the masculine son is used because livre is masculine. Sa maison on the other hand means either 'his house' or 'her house' because 'maison' is feminine. Non-possessive pronouns, on the other hand, are usually gender-specific.

It is important to consider that while in romance languages pronouns are gender-specific, in most of them, with the notable exception of French, are null subject languages; i.e., it is not required to state a subject or pronoun in every sentence. In that way, it is possible to talk in such a way that the gender of a person will not be revealed.

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