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Peter Sokolowski, Editor at Large
The "he" or "she" dilemma
Friday February 20th 2009
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The "he" or "she" dilemma
Answer

Sometimes the pronoun he is used in English when the gender of the person being spoken of is not known.  But what about similar uses of she?  Editor Kory Stamper sheds some light on this use:

One of our readers asks:

"I have recently seen use of the pronoun her in sentences like 'If someone you respect offers advice, listen to her.'  Is there a rule that specifies when you should use him or her?"

One of the quirks of English is that it has a masculine pronoun (he) and a feminine pronoun (she), but no pronoun for both genders.  This becomes a problem when you are writing a sentence where the pronoun's antecedent could refer to either gender.

Some writers get around this problem by using the third-person plural pronoun they instead ("If the student wants a copy of their transcript, they should go to the Registrar's Office.").  But many grammarians object to this use, since there is no number agreement between the antecedent (in this case, "the student") and the pronoun (they).  Instead, grammarians have historically said that the pronoun he in all its forms should be used when the antecedent that the pronoun refers to could be either gender.

About 30 years ago, some people began objecting to the use of he in this way, saying that it did not include women and was sexist.  So some people began to use he or she and him or her instead of he.  The main problem with this construction is that it can be very awkward ("If the student wants a copy of his or her transcript, he or she should go to the Registrar's Office.") or its use is inconsistent within the same sentence ("If the student wants a copy of his or her transcript, they should go to the Registrar's Office.").   To try to make it less awkward, writers sometimes use the shortened forms s/he for "she or he" or him/her for "him or her." This is not as awkward in writing, but it can still be awkward in spoken English.

No one has come up with a good solution to the problem of which pronoun to use when you aren't sure what gender the antecedent is.  Many people have tried to coin a new common-gender pronoun, but none of them have been successful.  Many people still use they or them, especially informally.  And some people have decided to get around the problem by using he in some sentences and she in others ("The student will need to show his ID to use the gym.  The student can rent a locker to store her clothes while she works out.").  As you can see, alternating between he and she when discussing the same topic can look awkward.

When you are writing a sentence where the pronoun's antecedent can either be a male or a female, you have several options.  You can try to rewrite the sentence so that no pronoun is necessary ("Student transcripts are available at the Registrar's Office.").  You can use he or she (or its variants s/he) as we show in the third paragraph above.  You can follow the historical model and use he ("If the student wants a copy of his transcript, he should go to the Registrar's Office") or use the newer model and use she ("If the student wants a copy of her transcription, she should go to the Registrar's Office.").  Be aware that some people still feel this use of he is sexist, so you may want to avoid this when possible.  Whichever convention you follow, though, the most important thing is to be consistent.

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