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Bob Charles

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How do we fix the third person singular indefinite pronoun "he" used in the English language?

No one has fixed this problem in 500 years. Why? We now use a bunch of awkward structures. None come natural. You would think the evolution of the English language, especially in the last 100 years, would have taken care of this. But it hasn't. The problem exists in most other languages. Maybe somewhere the problem is solved and we can borrow the solution.

o use "he/she" or "she/he" .. who gets to go first?
o use "she' one time and "he" the other?
o How about "it" for babies? Or people at the door: "who is it?"
o How about making a statement and only using "she and her"?
o Or inventing a new word like: "shim, sher, .."
o Use the Jane Austen plural. My favorite.

I asked 150 English department staff members from the University of Pittsburgh and UCLA the same question. They replied with many variants of the above.

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  • Jul 14 2013: "He" does not need to be fixed.

    We need another pronoun that is gender neutral. I like "e". because I like short words.

    Perhaps this will become popular for texting and then it will spread.
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      Jul 14 2013: or "H" for human. either way, you can be sure someone will feel offended or oppressed by it
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    Jul 26 2013: Suggestions about this have been made from time to time. My own effort to suggest four new needed pronouns is from 2004 at the website Blue Ridge Journal: http://www.blueridgejournal.com/brj-genderlang.htm
    To save the effort of looking it up, the brief essay ends like this:

    For "he/she": "e" (pronounced: ee)
    For "him/her": "em" (pronounced: emm)
    For "his/hers"): "er" (pronounced: ur)
    For "himself/herself": "emself"

    "If a pedestrian doesn't watch er step, a car may hit em and e'll find emself in a hospital."

    An alternative is to accept the use of "it" and "its" as neutral pronouns referring to persons:
    "The letter-carrier was late. I got so mad at it! It was no excuse that a dog had bitten its leg."

    (This campaign won't be easy.)
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      Jul 17 2013: Pay teachers to do it too. If English Professors and teachers would agree to use and teach "E" then maybe the Press style books would use it (AP, Chicago, etc).
  • Jul 15 2013: The rare happenstance of the words he and she in English, etc. is comparatively minor as compared with other Latin or Romance languages. For instance, in the Spanish language to the south of our border. almost all the pronouns are different from male to female expressions. For some languages, even the proper nouns; names, are spelled differently. Luckily, they haven't tried to compound their writings to such manner as doctor/doctora, every time they try to say a "doctor", etc. to make it more complex. Of course, the basic reasoning is that they did consider that gender differentiation IS IMPORTANT FOR THEIR CONVERSATION PURPOSES.
    Another comment, When you try to say or type a third-person human, you say "the person" instead of the word s/he, you end up typing more letters/alphabets than the other way, so this actually sacrifices the working efficiency for the sake of inclusiveness.
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    Jul 15 2013: It is illiterate to use "He" to refer to a female subject, or to use "She" for a male subject. If the context requires making known the sex of the subject then MAKE IT KNOWN! If stating the subject's sex is not necessary, or desired, then don't mention it! In the context of the following paragraph about my human friend Terry I will avoid making it clear whether Terry is a male, or a female: "Terry is compassionate, concerned, and nurturing. Terry has helped me on numerous occassions when I have been hopelessly conflicted about what action I should take in a difficult situation. Terry always makes time for me when I ask for help. Terry contacts me regularly to keep current on my struggles and successes. I find immense comfort in knowing Terry is always there and is willing to carve-out a minute or two from a very demanding daily schedule. Terry is happily married and has a son and a daughter. Terry often invites my wife and me to join-in on family outings with the four of them. we are so close that I practically feel like Terry is my sibling." How rediculous is it for me to say, "He has helped me on numerous ocassions" when I know Terry is a female? My point is that if the context requires clarification of the sex of the subject then CLARIFY BY STATING the sex of the subject. If the sex of the subject is not to be disclosed, or is unknown, then DON'T DISCLOSE it! Neither of those situations justifies using male for female, or vice versa, pronouns. This is a non-problem so long as the use of indefinite pronouns is avoided. Thank you!
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      Jul 26 2013: You're right, Ed: you've managed to avoid the dreaded pronoun. But I suspect most editors would reject your paragraph as excessively Terryfied.
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        Jul 26 2013: As Shakespeare said, "First thing we do is shoot all the Editors and Editorettes who insist upon using nonsensical, illogical, grammatically inaccurate pronouns." Problem solved.
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    Jul 14 2013: As simple as it seems, this may be an unsolvable problem. Here is an interesting list of attempts:
    http://www.english.illinois.edu/-people-/faculty/debaron/essays/epicene.htm

    An in depth definition of "epicene":
    http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19980812
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    Jul 14 2013: Here is a note I received from English Prof PKW, University of Pittsburgh (1995):

    " I suppose my practice depends, like all language usage, on the pragmatic context of the discourse--spoken or written, informal or formal, etc. But in general I try to avoid using "he", "him" or "his" when the sex of the person referred to is unknown, despite the fact that historically this practice was widespread until relatively recently, when feminists called attention to it. Now I find it jarring, though less so than references to a "man" when the person referred to might be female.

    In informal contexts, I may occasionally use "they", "them", or "their", and I think that in a few decades this may become the most general solution to the problem. In formal contexts, I generally try to recast the sentence by finding a way to give the antecedent a plural form. But if this doesn't work well, I make do with "he or she", "him or her", "his or her", perhaps occasionally reversing the order to "she or he", etc., to counter the effect of emphasis on the male in the more familiar order. Sometimes "one" will work, but in many contexts it seem too formal or pretentious.

    Other solutions, like various invented pronouns, I never use; and I guess I seldom, if ever, use "she" throughout a passage (simply reversing the old convention of using "he"), as some writers do. "
  • Jul 14 2013: "The problem exists in most other languages. Maybe somewhere the problem is solved and we can borrow the solution."

    Where the problem does not exist you won't see female/male versions. Is that a solution? We have two versions for your he/she/it:

    1. Frankly, I don't even know why you call "it" to be a personal pronoun. In Hungarian we have a demonstrative pronoun for that: "ez". "Or "az" if the thing is distant. This applies to every object or thought and any unimportant or unknown being. Like if you want to insult someone, you can refer to him as "ez/az" depending on his distance (just as your this and that goes).

    2. On the other hand as our only third person pronoun we have "ő". That goes for every human being or beings with importance. Like babies or dogs, or things with importance of some kind - your loved car for example. In the very last case here, you get a bit of humorous-lauditive effect.
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    Jul 14 2013: It's hard to think of something because anything we think of would sound unnatural. That's not how we grew up with the language. He/she is the best I got lol.

    In Chinese, the written form of "he" and "she" are different, but they verbally sound the same. This is a very good solution to me because when you say it out loud, you can refer anyone, but when you read it, you know exactly the gender.
  • Jul 14 2013: I am not sure it needs fixing.

    When referring to all humans, mankind, or man for short, doesn't it cover both genders? I think it may just be an anomaly that the indefinite pronoun fits both the male gender and the case that covers the species. So we need the pronoun to covet this case.

    It is only when using male gender distinctive pronoun when the context could be either/or gender that use of this pronoun creates an unintended gender bias and may become inappropriate.
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    Jul 14 2013: i always find it interesting that, in the days of deliberately using the female pronoun to address the "imbalance" in language, you see the positive use of the female but never the negative. eg a fool and her money are soon parted; working for the Woman.

    i would think that using the male and female pronoun in both negative and positive context would go some way to address the issue.

    generally, i don't think it matters that much.
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    Jul 14 2013: By indefinite we do not know anything about the person other than the context of the sentence. Example:

    "Look into his eyes when you talk with him."
    "He may not look back."

    This is considered proper English when the sex of the antecedent is unknown. But, this proper English is uncomfortable because of the male pronoun as the default.

    So, how would you re-phrase it?
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        Jul 14 2013: I think you have something here:

        "Look into the person's eyes when you talk with the person."
        "The person may not look back."

        Of the hundreds of responses I have recieved, amazinglyl this was not one of them! And it seems to work :)
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          Jul 26 2013: The word "person" is used a lot these days in the U.S., in new law and official written material. But as a longer word it has a way of sounding stilted and awkward if repeated a lot.