How to deal with unknown genders in English?

user2824371 06/15/2018. 6 answers, 1.130 views
pronouns singular-they gender

When I start a sentence with the words (Someone, somebody,...etc.), I don't know how to choose the right pronoun at the end of the sentence.

If anybody asks you about the money, tell (Him - Her - It - Them) that it is in my bank account.


I felt that somebody was in the garden but I did not see (Him - Her - It - Them).


Speaker 1: A friend of mine helped me a lot.

Speaker 2: You should thank (Him - Her - It - Them).


Congratulations on your new baby! What's (His - Her - Its - Their) name?


Those are the cases or the situations that I can think of. If you have any other different situations, please let me know.

6 Answers

Michael Rybkin 06/16/2018.

If you want to sound formal and don't want to be accused of any kind of sexism or if you really don't know the gender of the person you're talking about, I'd recommend using the pattern him or her. It is by far the safest way refer to somebody previously mentioned in a manner that's not gender-specific (because it simply includes both genders):

If anybody asks you about the money, tell him or her that it is in my bank account.

Congratulations on your new baby! What's his or her name?

More colloquially, however, you'd just say them. When them is used like that, it is called the singular they. It is a lot shorter while being completely gender-neutral:

If anybody asks you about the money, tell them that it is in my bank account.

Speaker 1: A friend of mine helped me a lot.
Speaker 2: You should thank them.

Here's a short excerpt from the Wikipedia article I linked you to above that sums it all up nicely about this singular they thing:

The singular they had emerged by the 14th century. Though it is commonly employed in everyday English, it has been the target of criticism since the late 19th century. Its use in formal English has increased with the trend toward gender-inclusive language.

lly 06/15/2018.

You're really asking 'What is English's gender neutral pronoun?'

Informally, it's almost always 'they'.

English teachers stereotypically get their undies bunched and treat it as 'improper', but it's actually been the go-to since the 1300s and is a settled part of the spoken language. It's in Chaucer, Shakespeare, the KJV of the Bible, and Austen; my mom uses it; if you're a native English speaker and not a member of the royal family, your mom uses it; people should just get over themselves and accept it. Like it or not, though, it marks written work as informal or uneducated so you still don't usually get to use it in formal Standard Written English.

Formally, it's a mess.

The historical 'proper' default was the masculine pronoun 'he' up until the 1960s, unless you were describing someone involved in 'women's work'. You can probably see the problem, and why its use in academia fell off a cliff.

Many people then started cheekily defaulting to the feminine pronoun 'she' in reaction. The obvious sexism (and lingering discomfort for some male users) sometimes prompts people to just randomly vary their usage between the masculine and feminine pronouns. Politics being what it is, some people take offense at that, whether because they feel they should stick with traditional 'he' or should uphold the liberating 'she'.

It's pretty convenient to slash 's/he' or—among friends—'s/h/it' for subject pronouns and '(s)he' has been around even longer. There's nothing similarly convenient possible for the other cases, though, leaving the lumpy 'her or him' (or vice versa) and 'her or his' (or vice versa). Politics being what it is, some people take offense at that, whether because of the chosen order, or stylistic awkwardness, or avoidance of the masculine pronoun, or the insistence on binary gender.

Just a huge mess.

Lately, with LGBT expanding into QUILTBAG and positioning itself as the civil rights fight of the generation, there's a whole host of alternative pronouns like ne, ve, e(y), per, tey, z(i)e... that have made it onto Harvard & other colleges' admissions forms. Students check which one they want to go by, and profs are liable for screwing them up or trying to eyeball it. Cursory googling doesn't turn up any professors explicitly fired for refusing to join in, but several have been suspended until they did and one who loudly refused in Canada essentially turned himself into a right-wing cause célèbre... meaning his polite reception almost anywhere in academia is shot.


  • In informal personal communication, go with they but default respectfully to requests to the contrary if you later find out they preferred something else. Contracting to 'em is always safe since half the time it'll do double work as 'im.

If anybody asks you about the money, tell 'em that it's in my account.

Cute kid. What should I call 'em?

  • In formal settings, try to rephrase to the plural so you can go back to using they.

If people ask you about the money, tell them that it's in my account.

  • When that's not an option, rephrase to avoid pronouns altogether.

I felt that someone was in the garden, but I didn't see anybody.

You should say thanks.

What's the baby's name? Who got to choose the name? What name did you choose? Winston? Looks like a Winston to me...

  • When that's not an option, ask for clarity.

So is it a boy or a girl or have you not decided yet?

  • When that's not an option, suck it up and do the laundry list.

Each respondent to the survey listed her or his preferences on a 5-point scale.

And await that glorious day when either the descriptivists or the genderqueer finally win out and singular they becomes acceptable in the formal and professional register.

Daniel 06/15/2018.

In some cases, "him or her" and "them" are both not good choices. Especially if you have to repeat the pronoun many times, "him or her" can get really excessive. When you're speaking (as opposed to writing), this doesn't seem to come up as often, and "him or her" is generally a good choice.

When writing, though, you can sometimes get into a situation where you have to repeat the pronoun many times. For example, I spend a good portion of my day answering questions over email with customers using a particular piece of software and I sometimes find myself writing sentences like this:

In order to solve this problem, I need to know if the user did action X or action Y. If he or she did action X, he or she should take corrective action A. If he or she did action Y, he or she should take corrective action B.

It may be possible to refactor this sentence to be less redundant, but the case is made that "he or she" can get quite repetitive.

One option to fix this is singular "they", as is mentioned in your question and some other answers. This definitely helps make the sentence feel less redundant, but it's often considered less formal. In some cases, it could also be ambiguous whether a pronoun is intended to be singular "they" or plural "they".

Historically, generic "he" was used, though this can also be seen as old-fashioned and possibly even offensive. Recently, I've been seeing more and more examples of generic "she" in writing. My opinion is that the most natural-sounding way of handling this dilemma in writing is to switch off between generic "he" and generic "she."

Michael Harvey 06/15/2018.

We can use 'him or her' or 'them' when we don't know a gender. We use the present tense for 'if' clauses about hypothetical or possible future events of that type. 'Money' used like that is uncountable.

If anybody asks you about the money, tell them that it is in my bank account.


If anybody asks you about the money, tell him or her that it is in my bank account.

Crettig 06/15/2018.

A person is a person. Refer to the individual as such.


1)If anybody asked you about the money, tell the person that it is in my bank account.

2)I felt that somebody was in the garden but I did not see anyone.

3) Speaker 1: A friend of mine helped me a lot.

Speaker 2: You should thank that friend/buddy/comrade/confidant

4)Congratulations on your new baby! What's the baby's/ child's/ offspring's/ broodspawn's/ youngster's/ squirt's / toddler's/ tyke's/ kid's/ infant's/ youth's name?

ApertureSecurity 06/16/2018.

I think it's more correct to use it until the object is defined as being alive then male or female.

It's my book, give it to me.

Book isn't alive therefore it should be it.

If you need to choose a pronoun then use a masculine one for singular objects.

If anybody asks you about the money, tell him that it is in my bank account.

I think they should be only used in plurals where generic quantitative assumptions can be made.

They owe me money. Or I owe them money. They have my money in the bank.

They would be plural objects in each case for replacing the group. Since groups are rendered plural.

I have found that I will use It when in reference to a baby until I know it's gender.

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