What Is a Generic Pronoun?

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In English grammar, a generic pronoun is a personal pronoun (such as one or they) that can refer to both masculine and feminine entities. Also called a common-gender pronoun, an epicene pronoun, and a gender-neutral pronoun.

In recent years, because English does not have a singular equivalent for they and because the use of he as a generic pronoun appears to exclude or marginalize women, various composites and neologisms have been proposed, including s/he, han, and he/she.

Increasingly, the they-pronoun group is used in singular constructions (a practice that dates to the 16th century), though strict prescriptive grammarians fault this practice. The most common way of avoiding the problem is to use the plural forms of nouns in company with the generic pronouns they, them, and their.

Examples and Observations

  • One should never go to sleep with an electric heating pad turned on.
  • "[I]f one learns that one will not be allowed to get away with simply walking away from whatever messes one creates, one is given a strong negative incentive against making messes in the first place." (Henry Shue, "Global Environment and International Inequality." Climate Ethics: Essential Readings, ed. by Stephen Gardiner et al. Oxford University Press, 2010)
  • The way a person spends his or her leisure time tells us what he or she values.
  • "If everyone becomes committed to developing her or his own set of myths and symbols, how is community possible?" (Naomi R. Goldenberg, Changing of the Gods. Beacon, 1979)
  • "I don't want to live in a country that prohibits any person, whether he/she has paid the ultimate price for that country, from wearing, saying, writing, or telephoning any negative statements about the government." (American anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan)
  • "He (and by 'he' I also mean 'she') sees in these interlopers rivals for the affection he egoistically craves from his parents, and which he is unwilling to share with anyone else." (La Forest Potter, Strange Loves. Padell, 1933)
  • "In Baltimore, . . . yo is a new gender-neutral third-person personal pronoun. As in Yo was tuckin’ in his shirt or Yo sucks at magic tricks. If yo sticks around — and if it spreads — maybe we can put the ever-awkward he or she to rest forever." (Jessica Love, "They Get to Me." The American Scholar, Spring 2010)
  • "It's imperative to a child's success that they have strong self-esteem. A parent plays a key role in its development and must be conscious of choices s/he makes daily to influence a child's self-esteem." (Toni Schutta)

Origin of "He" as a Generic Pronoun

"'He' started to be used as a generic pronoun by grammarians who were trying to change a long-established tradition of using 'they' as a singular pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of the generic 'he.' . . . [T]he new law said, 'words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.'" (R. Barker and C. Moorcroft, Grammar First. Nelson Thornes, 2003)

A Gender-Neutral Fossil

"There is an interesting historical twist to this story. Around 1000 years ago, at the time of so-called Old English, the masculine pronoun was and the feminine pronoun was hēo. The form she didn't make an appearance until sometime during the 12th century. It eventually came to replace hēo, and this is why we have this little irregularity now in the modern language — she versus her/hers. The initial 'h' of her and hers is a fossil that preserves the 'h' of the original feminine pronoun hēo. Now, there were some conservative dialects in the UK that (in their spoken versions at least) never felt the effects of she and indeed ended up with only one pronoun form (the collapse of original and hēo). Sometimes written as ou (or a), it was probably pronounced something like [uh] (in other words, the schwa . . .). These dialects didn't have the problem of coming up with clumsy alternatives like s/he when the sex of a person was unknown or irrelevant. The form ou was truly a gender-neutral pronoun." (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)

The Singular They

"The first results of a large scale project investigating the adoption of feminist language change in spoken language (with a focus on public speech) suggests that 'singular' they is the preferred generic pronoun in public speech: 45 radio interviews (approx. 196000 words and involving 14 interviewers and 199 guests) yielded 422 cases of pronominalisation of generic nouns. Dominating the pronoun stakes by a large margin is 'singular' they which was used 281 times (67%). This was followed by 72 cases in which the generic noun was repeated (17%). There were still 50 cases of the use of masculine generic he (12%). The dual pronoun strategy, i.e. use of he or she only occurred 8 times (1.5%) and the generic use of she only 3 times (0.5%)." (Anne Pauwels, "Inclusive Language Is Good Business: Gender, Language and Equality in the Workplace." Gendered Speech in Social Context, ed. by Janet Holmes. Victoria University. Press, 2000)

The Generic "They" in a New Translation of the Bible

"The 2011 translation of the New International Version Bible, or NIV, does not change pronouns referring to God, who remains 'He' and 'the Father.' But it does aim to avoid using 'he' or 'him' as the default reference to an unspecified person. . . .
"At issue is how to translate pronouns that apply to both genders in the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts but have traditionally been translated using masculine forms in English. . . .
"An example from the translator's notes for Mark 4:25 . . . show how the NIV's translation of these words has evolved over the past quarter-century.
"The widely distributed 1984 version of the NIV quotes Jesus: 'Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.'
"The more recent incarnation of the NIV from 2005, called Today's New International Version, changed that to: 'Those who have will be given more; as for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them.'
"The CBMW [Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood] had complained in 2005 that making the subject of a verse plural to convey that it could refer equally to a man or a woman 'potentially obscured an important aspect of biblical thought--that of the personal relationship between an individual and God.'
"The NIV 2011 seems to have taken that criticism into account and come up with a compromise: 'Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.'
"While the translators' former grammar teachers may not like it, the translators offer a strong justification for their choice of 'they' (instead of the clunky 'he or she') and 'them' (instead of 'him or her') to refer back to the singular 'whoever.'
"They commissioned an extensive study of the way modern English writers and speakers convey gender inclusiveness. According to the translators' notes on the Committee on Bible Translation's website, 'The gender-neutral pronoun "they" ("them"/"their") is by far the most common way that English-language speakers and writers today refer back to singular antecedents such as "whoever," "anyone," "somebody," "a person," "no one," and the like.'" (Associated Press, "New Bible Draws Critics of Gender-Neutral Language." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 18, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Generic Pronoun?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-generic-pronoun-1690895. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is a Generic Pronoun? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-generic-pronoun-1690895 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Generic Pronoun?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-generic-pronoun-1690895 (accessed May 29, 2023).