Did you know "he" and "she" are the only gender-specific pronouns in the English language? While it may be obvious to most native English speakers that "he" is masculine and refers to a male and "she" is feminine and refers to a female, non-native English speakers may confuse the two.
These pronouns are subject to a list of grammar rules with regard to everyday usage. But what happens when a writer wants to remain gender neutral? Here are a few grammar rules for he/she usage that will help you stay the course and achieve your writing goals.
Many languages use gender-specific pronouns to refer to a variety of objects that are obviously without gender. Many of the Romance languages, for instance, refer to objects as "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 foreign language because, with every new vocabulary word comes a corresponding pronoun.
Interestingly, though, the English language employs "it" as a gender-neutral term to refer to inanimate objects, or animate objects that are not human beings.
In English, "he" and "she" are known as subject pronouns. They're used only when referring to people and, in some cases, animals such as pets (although such usage isn't technically correct). These pronouns function in a number of ways.
"He" or "she" may be used when the pronoun is the subject of the sentence:
He promised to come to the movies.
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.
The subject can be "renamed" in a sentence so that the individual speaking or writing need not repeat the name over and over:
Dana lied so she would not have to go to school.
You wouldn't say "Dana lied so Dana would not have to go to school."
Generally, we don't ascribe gender-specific pronouns to inanimate objects in the English language. However, mainly due to tradition, there are a few instances where it's okay to use "he" and "she" to refer to inanimate objects. Let's take a look:
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 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 was named Lucille after a woman involved in an incident at a club he was playing in his earlier years. He often referred to the guitar as "she."
Children often name their dolls and stuffed animals with 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.
Rewriting a sentence may help but, unfortunately, you may be forced to make a decision between sexist, clunky, or technically incorrect terminology.
However, as culture changes, so does the language, and many believe that the exclusive use of "he" for a person of unknown gender is sexist. So, there are a few options in this situation:
You can use "one," as in, "One never knows what to expect at game night." However, this comes off a bit stilted and stiff.
You can use "he/she," as in, "We don't know who left their tablet on the table, but he/she will surely come back to look for it." However, this reads as clunky - the number one enemy of writers.
You can use "he or she," as in, "We're looking for the owner of this tablet, but he or she hasn't come back to claim it yet." This example isn't the end of the world but, again, the goal for every writer is to get to the point without using too many words.
Finally, you may see some people use "they." This is technically incorrect in American English - "they" shouldn't be used with a singular antecedent, as it's only meant for plurals - although it is becoming more common. It's considered acceptable in British English as a much smoother, and gender-neutral, way to get your message across than the other alternatives.
It seems as though there's no clear answer to the he/she debate. Using "one" seems stiff. Using "he/she" seems clunky. Using "he or she" is a bit better but, still, too many words when one will do. Finally, you may see "they" used in these unknown circumstances, but it's not considered grammatically correct.
Believe it or not, in March 2017, the Associated Press announced that the AP Stylebook will accept the plural "they, them, and their" to refer to a singular antecedent when the alternative wording is awkward or clumsy. It seems the authorities on the matter knew writers were continually put in a tough spot when they wanted to remain gender neutral and came to the rescue.