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.
In the first instance, the subject referred to is a male, and in the second, the subject is a female.
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.
For years, if the gender of an individual referred to in a sentence is unknown, “he” would be used as the generic pronoun.
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.
Using this pronoun is often clunky and results in some strange-sounding sentences.
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!
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