Personal Pronouns - Gender

Definition

Modern English is largely an ungendered language. Whereas other languages might have masculine and feminine forms for nouns depending on the verbs, articles, or adjectives they are used with, English nouns by and large remain neutral. However, a personal pronoun can be inflected for gender to correspond to the gender of the person (and, in some cases, an animal) it represents.
Personal pronouns are only inflected for gender when they are in the third person and singular—first-person and second-person pronouns (singular or plural) and third-person plural pronouns* remain gender neutral. Here are the gendered pronouns in English:
Feminine Singular
Masculine Singular
she
her
hers
herself
he
him
his
himself
The third-person singular can also be neuter (gender neutral). This is used when a personal pronoun represents a thing or an animal. Animals can sometimes take gendered personal pronouns if they are pets or domesticated animals; otherwise, they take the third-person neuter form:
Third-person neuter singular
it
its
its
itself
Remember, when there are multiple people or things, we use the ungendered forms of they*:
Third person plural
they
them
their
theirs
themselves

Examples

  • “I really love Jenny. She is my best friend.”
  • “Danny said that he would lend me his jacket for tonight.”
  • “Look at that cute dog wagging his tail!”
  • “Bill and Samantha told me they were coming over later.”
  • “You should not try to control love, but rather be guided by it.”
  • “I’ve got the report for you. I’ll just set it on your desk.”
  • “The horse galloped by, its hooves pounding the ground violently.”
  • “The parade floats are spectacular! I love watching them go down the street.”

Countries and ships

Countries and vehicles, especially ships or boats, will sometimes be given a feminine form when spoken of in the third person. For example:
  • “The SS Freedom is a good ship. She has certainly seen her fair share of adventure.”
  • “The Prime Minister promised that the United Kingdom would be returned to her former glory during his term.”
This is a more traditional usage; it is less common these days, and by no means necessary. Some style guides go so far as to discourage its use.

*Usage Note: “Singular they”

English does not have a way of identifying a single person with a pronoun if his or her gender is not known, so sometimes the third-person plural forms (they, them, etc.) are used as a gender-neutral alternative to the third-person feminine/masculine forms. This is sometimes called “singular they.”
For example:
  • “You shouldn’t judge someone until you know what they are really like.”
  • “If anyone needs extra help with their studies, they should feel free to see me after class.”
“Singular they” is gradually becoming accepted as the norm, especially in instances with indefinite pronouns that sound plural but are grammatically singular (like someone or anyone in the examples above). However, it is still considered incorrect by many writers and writing guides, especially in American English.
Previously, it was standard practice to simply use the masculine third-person singular forms (he, him, his, himself), but this is now seen as being potentially sexist. Likewise, using only the feminine third-person singular would be exclusionary, and mixing him and her throughout a piece of writing would be confusing.
Therefore, in formal or professional writing, the best form to use is “he or she” or “him or her,” or else simply to rewrite the sentence to avoid sounding cluttered or awkward. In informal writing or speech, though, using “singular they” is generally OK.
Quiz

1. Which of the following is an appropriate third-person plural pronoun to use when talking about more than one girl or woman?





2. With what non-human things is it sometimes considered acceptable to use a gendered pronoun?






3. Which of the following sentences uses the informal “singular they”?





4. When is an animal most commonly given a gendered pronoun? (Select the answer that is most correct.)






5. In what instance can a third-person neuter singular pronoun be used with a person?






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