The personal pronouns “he” and “she” are the only gender-specific pronouns in the English language. While it is obvious to most native English speakers that “he” is masculine and refers to a male, and that “she” is feminine and refers to a female, non-native English speakers often confuse the two. These pronouns are subject to a list of grammar rules with respect to everyday usage, and the use of these grammar concepts has changed over time to reflect the closing gender gap among English-speaking nations. Here are a few rules concerning basic usage, and the he-she-they dilemma that plagues writers who want to use an inclusive, gender-nonspecific term.
Many languages use gender-specific pronouns to refer to a variety of objects that are obviously sexless; that is, without gender. Many of the Romance languages, for instance, refer to objects as either “he” or “she” instead of the non-specific “it” common to English speakers. Every object, animate and inanimate, is therefore ascribed a gender. This can be difficult for English speakers learning a new language, because as one’s vocabulary grows, so does the number of pronouns one must recall. However, the English language employs “it” as a gender-neutral term with which to refer to inanimate objects, or animate objects that are not human beings.
In English, “he” and “she” are known as subject pronouns. They are used only when referring to people (and in certain cases, animals such as pets, although such usage is not technically correct) and they function in a number of ways. He or she may be used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence, as in “He promised to come to the movies” or “She told me she would return shortly.” In the first instance, the subject referred to is a male, and in the second, the subject is a female. Sometimes, the subject will be “renamed” in a sentence so that the individual speaking or writing need not repeat the name over and over. One would not say “Dana lied so Dana would not have to go to school.” Rather, it is appropriate to change the second Dana to “she” if Dana refers to a female and “he” if Dana refers to a male. You might also say “It is she who lied” instead of “Dana lied” in a sentence, another example of renaming the subject of a sentence.
Inanimate objects, as mentioned above, generally do not have gender-specific pronouns applied to them. Sometimes, using “he” and “she” to refer to inanimate objects is accepted as correct in the English language, due to tradition. Sailing vessels, for example, have often been referred to as “she.” Even when the ship is named after a man, such as the USS Ronald Reagan, “she” is accepted. Countries are sometimes still referred to as “she” as well. “There’s America,” you might point out to a foreign friend in a plane. “Isn’t she beautiful?” Some people name inanimate objects and refer to them as “he” or “she.” B.B. King’s ES-335 guitar is named Lucille after a woman at the center of an incident at a club he was playing in his earlier years. He often refers to the guitar as “she.” Children often name their dolls and stuffed animals and use gender-specific pronouns. Some people name their vehicles or even their homes, and “he” and “she” may be used to describe them.
For years, if the gender of an individual referred to in a sentence is unknown, “he” would be used as the generic pronoun. “We don’t know who started the fire,” a police officer might say, “but he will be held responsible.” It is understood, by both the police officer and any listeners, that “he” could refer to either a woman or a man. However, as culture changes, so does the language along with it, and many believe that the exclusive use of “he” for a person of unknown gender is sexist. There are a few options in this situation. An archaic way of dealing with the issue is to use “one,” as in “One never knows what one can expect.” Using this pronoun is often clunky and results in some strange-sounding sentences. “He or she” can be used in moderation, but it cannot be used too many times at once: “he or she knows that if he or she needs to talk, he or she can visit his or her professor.” Some use “they,” but this word cannot be used with a singular antecedent—it is only used with plurals. Sometimes rewriting a sentence may help, but unfortunately you will at some point be forced to make a choice between sexist, clunky, or technically incorrect!