Mary saw himself in the mirror

We are so used to using pronouns that indicate gender that sometimes it's hard to realize what an odd practice it is. It expects everybody to implicitly understand the gender of each person being mentioned. For example, say that Pat is organizing a trip, and tells Sandy:

Pat: I talked with Alice and Bob about the trip. It seems that she wants to come, but he is too busy.

To understand what Pat is saying, Sandy must know that "she" refers to Alice, and that "he" refers to Bob. This will not work if Sandy is unfamiliar with the people being discussed. Consider the following:

Pat: I talked with Tracy and Charlie about the trip.
Sandy: Sorry, who are they?
Pat: They are colleagues from work. You met them once, and Tracy knows your sister..
Sandy: I don't quite remember them. What did they say about the trip?
Pat: It seems that she wants to come, but he is too busy.
Sandy: Sorry, which one wants to come? Is Tracy male or female? And Charlie?

As this shows, using "he" or "she" depends upon the partipants' gender being well-known and unambiguous. Why is gender special? Why don't pronouns indicate other characteristics of people? For example, should young people and old people be given different pronouns? Is it reasonable to expect that everyone knows the age of the people being discussed?

Pat: I talked with Bobby and Mr. Anderson about the trip. It seems that juvee wants to come, but elde is too busy.

Similarly, should black people and white people have different pronouns (as discussed by Douglas Hofstadter)? Is it reasonable to expect that everybody implicitly knows the race of the people being discussed?

Pat: I talked with DeShawn and and Connor about the trip. It seems that ble wants to come, but whe is too busy.

Just as we don't have pronouns to indicate age or race, I believe that we should not use pronouns to indicate gender. Instead, I advocate always using one pronoun to indicate a person, regardless of gender. For that purpose, I suggest using "he" and the associated variants. "He" is shorter than the alternative "she". Furthermore, I like having different pronouns to indicate the objective and possessive forms: "I saw him in his car" vs "I saw her in her car". Here's a list of pronouns:

Subjective He is late. She is late.
Objective Sandy saw him. Sandy saw her.
Possessive determiner It is his car. It is her car.
Possessive pronoun It is his. It is hers.
Reflexive He saw himself. She saw herself.

The pronouns "they/them/their" can be used as usual, in a similarly gender-neutral manner, to refer to a group of people, without ambiguity:

I talked with Pat about the trip, and also with the Anderson family. It seems that he wants to come, but they are too busy.

What are the downsides of using "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun? A woman accustomed to the status quo may dislike being referred to as "he". This is particularly important in the case of a transgender woman, who dislikes reminders of being male in the past, or of not being considered a "real" woman. However, my usage of "he" is not intended to cast aspersions on the femininity of the person. It is simply a gender-neutral way to refer to a person:

I talked with Caitlyn Jenner about the trip. It seems that he wants to come.
I also talked with Kendall Jenner about the trip. It seems that he wants to come, too.

This makes no implications about the gender of Caitlyn or Kendall Jenner.

Similarly, I believe that a person does not have the right to specify how somebody else refers to that person. In fact, that seems rather an odd right to claim. Say that Albert had acquired the nickname "Goober" in high school. Twenty years later, the unflattering nickname is mostly forgotten. The exception is Bob, who continues to call Albert by the nickname "Goober", and to refer to Albert by that nickname, such as when talking to their mutual friend Charlie:

Bob: I met Goober yesterday at the mall!
Charlie: Sorry, whom did you meet?

Bob's behaviour seems oblivious, or even rude, and Albert and/or Charlie can certainly ask Bob to desist. But I don't think that Albert is entitled to demand that Bob do so.

Similarly, say that Alice wishes to be called "Shaminia", for whatever reason. Alice can certainly ask friends to do so, and many might oblige. But I don't think that Alice is entitled to demand that others use that preferred name "Shaminia".

Similarly, Alice, as a female, with preferred pronouns "she/her", might be accustomed to being referred to by others using those pronouns. But my own preference is to consistently use the pronouns "he/him/his" for everybody, both male and female. I don't think that Alice's preference confers the right to demand that I acquiesce, particularly as my usage is not intended to make any implication as to whether Alice is female or not.

Many people now specify their preferred gender pronoun when introducing themselves, by saying, for example, "Hi, my name is Alice Smith (she/her)." I feel that people should not be expected to reveal such personal details upon their first meeting, just as they are not expected to state their age, ethnicity, or marital status. Consistently using "he/him" as a gender-neutral pronoun avoids the whole issue. Then people can reveal their gender, age, and other personal details over time, as they wish.

The use of gender-specific pronouns varies widely by language. E.g., the French language has gender-specific singular pronouns il and elle, like English. But French also has gender-specific plural pronouns ils and elles . Furthermore, French assigns gender to inanimate objects as well:

Voilà la table. Elle est rouge. (Here's the table. She is red.)

By contrast, the Sinhala language uses a single gender-neutral singular pronoun:

මගේ අම්මා කතා කරා. එයා පරක්කු වෙනවා. (My mother called. He will be late.)

As these examples show, the usage of gender-specific pronouns varies by language. It is not an inherent feature of communication, but rather a choice made by each language. So it is reasonable to discuss changing that choice in English, and in other languages.

This specific proposal as to the usage of "he" is mine, but many others have proposed similar ideas. The book "A New Grammar", by Anne Fisher, discusses this usage. Similarly, an article by Robin Dembroff & Daniel Wodak proposes making English "less gendered".


Rujith de Silva
Created 2021-08-15; edited 2021-11-20.