Gender-Free Pronouns Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Gender-Free Pronouns

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Suppose that instead of 'he' and 'she', we had different pronouns for people with different coloured skin. When referring to a black person we'd say 'ne', and when referring to a white person we'd say 'ge'. For example:

'Ge hit nim several times for nir disobedience - for ge did not want gir hard work to be wasted.'

Or, in normal English:

'The white person hit the black person several times for the black person's disobedience - for the white person did not want the white person's hard work to be wasted.'

It's a pretty silly idea, and it's clear to see how racist it could be. Yet we follow exactly the same idea with regards to gender. Is this something that should be changed - and if so, how?

Language does not merely reflect the way we think: it also shapes our thinking.
-UNESCO Report on Gender-Neutral Language


This Entry is titled 'gender-free pronouns', but people also describe these pronouns (and indeed other gender-free language) as 'gender-neutral', 'gender-inclusive', and 'politically correct'. They all mean roughly the same thing, so don't panic...

New Words

Man is the naming animal. It is written in the Christian bible that the first man named each animal in turn - a privilege denied to the first woman, of course. Words are continually entering and leaving our language, with people like the Oxford English Dictionary struggling to keep up, and are a ready source of stories for the tabloids. A few years ago, 'dot-com'1 entered the language, as computer stocks soared. More recently 'P45 party'2 has gained acceptance, as those same stocks crashed.

New words are called neologisms or slang. People decide whether to use a neologism for a variety of possible reasons:

  • Because they just like it
  • Because they find it useful
  • Because they feel they ought to
  • Because they have to
  • To look clever or well-read
  • To become accepted into a group of some kind
  • To make a statement about themselves or the world

And so people make their conscious decisions to adopt a word or not. If it is a good neologism it will slowly spread by word of mouth - if it is a bad neologism it will never spread beyond a small circle of the inventor's friends.

New Meanings

As well as new words, new meanings for existing words are also a constant feature of English. A to-the-point example is 'gender'. This used to mean grammatical gender - whether a word in a language such as German is masculine, feminine, or neuter.

Later on, gender was used in a humorous sense to mean biological gender: whether a person, animal, plant, etc is male or female. Sex also just meant biological gender, but nowadays 'sex' can also mean 'have sexual relations with', which it couldn't before. After this happened, 'gender' was pressed into service to replace 'sex', no doubt by employers fed up with oh-so-witty people filling in 'Yes please!' on application forms. So now, 'gender' can be used to mean both grammatical gender and biological gender.

'Gender' can also be used to include social gender: whether someone behaves or dresses in a masculine or feminine way, or what biological gender someone is perceived to have. In a reversal of fortunes, some people now use 'sex' to emphasise purely biological elements of the male-female continuum, and 'gender' to emphasise social elements. This is a good example of how some English words have changed their meanings several times over their history.


Pronouns are a simple idea: short words are used to represent objects, so 'she' might represent 'Fred's mother'. To learn more about pronouns, see Declining English, which also explains the different 'cases' in English. There is also an Entry on We.

Case Study - 'sie', 'hir' and friends

Consider someone trying to put a left hand into a right-handed glove; if either the glove or the hand is replaced with its reverse you'll get a gloved hand. Obviously this doesn't work if the person specifically wants this glove on hir left hand
First recorded usage of 'hir' on Usenet - Tuesday 26 May, 1981

It's a lot easier to talk about gender-free pronouns if you have an example to refer to, and this Entry will use 'sie' and 'hir' from now on for its examples. That doesn't mean that they're somehow the best, though - there are lots of other alternatives provided near the end of this Entry, and they all have their good points.

The correct usage of 'sie' and 'hir' is shown in the table below. If it's still unclear, keep reading, as there are more examples throughout the Entry.

SubjectObjectPossessive AdjectivePossessive PronounReflexive
MaleHe laughedI hit himHis face bledI am hisHe shaves himself
FemaleShe laughedI hit herHer face bledI am hersShe shaves herself
Gender-freeSie laughedI hit hirHir face bledI am hirsSie shaves hirself

You can capitalise these words for all of the reasons you might capitalise other pronouns. For example, if you believe in an ungendered deity, then you might pray to Hir in the hope that Sie will intervene in your life. This marks a refreshing change from traditional gods and goddesses.


The ancestors of this pronoun set could date back to at least the 1930s: to hes, hir, hem (quoted in the Washington Post), and se, sim, sis (quoted in the Liverpool Echo). It's guesstimated that the current form has been in use for between twenty and thirty years.

'hir' probably comes from patching together 'his', 'him', and 'her' - sharing the common 'h' and taking an 'i' from 'his' or 'him' and an 'r' from 'her'. Alternatively, it might come from the pronoun 'hir' in Chaucer's English, meaning 'her'. Once you have that word, extending it to 'hirs' and 'hirself' is quite natural.

One slightly contrived theory for the origin of 'sie' is that it came from S(he), I(t), (h)E. Another is that it was borrowed from the German 'sie', which means you, she, her, it, they, or them depending on context. Many people use 'hir' while using some alternative spelling (but the same pronunciation) instead of 'sie', such as 'se', 'ze', 'xe', and 'zie'.

Pronunciation Guide

I have been in circles where non-gender-specific pronouns are used in regular speech. And I tell you, it sounds very odd for the first hour or so that you hear it. Then you slowly acclimate.
-Fragilis, h2g2 Researcher

Like many words, different people pronounce these in different ways, so there's really no correct way. Nevertheless, the most common pronunciations are included here, along with pronunciation [guides] - see the SAMPA Phonetic Alphabet to decode them.

  • Sie [si:] or [zi:]. About three quarters of people in a quick sample of Usenet said they pronounced this roughly like 'see' [si:], while the rest said they pronounced it roughly like 'zee' [zi:].
  • Hir [hi:@(r)] or [h3:]. About three quarters of the sample said they pronounced this roughly like 'here' [hi:@(r)], while the rest said they pronounced it roughly like 'her' [h3:].
  • Hirs and Hirself - extended from 'hir' in the way you'd expect: adding an 's' or 'self' sound onto the end. Of course, this can vary depending on how you choose to pronounce 'hir'!

Some people feel that these words have a female bias, and certainly they can sound similar to the corresponding female pronouns. Historically this was an asset: the initial uptake was helped by irritation at the use of 'he' as a gender-free term. Now society is more enlightened, this can be considered a liability, and is one reason why most users favour pronouncing 'hir' like 'hear'.

Obviously, where there are similarities to existing words, and in particular 'her', 'hers', 'herself', there is some potential for misunderstandings. If spoken quickly, phrases like 'zark her' and 'zark hir' are pronounced the same: as zark'r[za:rk@(r)]. This is similar to the conflict between 'zark him' and 'zark them' when spoken as zark'm[za:rk@m]. As always, it is the responsibility of the speaker to try and avoid ambiguity, and the responsibility of the listener to try and infer the intended meaning where there is an ambiguity.

Problems with 'sie' and 'hir'

At the time, black hole was fought furiously by some physicists who preferred the less exciting but more accurate 'frozen star'. In the end, 'black hole' won out, and 'frozen star' is consigned to the dustbin of history. It is impossible to predict now whether 'sie' and 'hir' will end up in the dictionary or the dustbin, though many people have opinions on the subject.

Some people question whether new words are needed at all - and suggest finding other ways round those situations where gendered pronouns cause problems. Some of these ways are described later on in this Entry. Some find 'sie' and 'hir' ugly, some find them beautiful - De Gustibus Non Disputandem3. The various pronunciation issues mentioned above are also a source of controversy.

Problems with gendered pronouns

There are a variety of problems that gendered pronouns like 'he' and 'she' can cause. The examples use 'sie' and 'hir' to solve these problems, but this does not mean that using 'sie' and 'hir' is the best solution. Indeed, the same person might use different solutions to different problems.

Throughout these examples, references to people include references to other things with biological gender, like some animals and plants.

  • To refer to people of unknown gender. Some people on the internet hide their gender, and babies can be very androgynous. The dwarves of Terry Pratchett's Discworld fall into this category.
    'I was on IRC with Gecko last night - sie says that French is very hard to learn.'
    'What a cute little baby! Are you breastfeeding hir, so sie has the best possible start in life?'

  • To refer to someone whose gender is unknown to you, but known to the person you're speaking to.
    'The doctor said I had nine months to live.'
            'Did sie really!?'
    'Yeah. But the nurse was wonderful - really helped me pull through.'
            'How lovely. Did you get hir a thank-you present?'

  • To refer to a person whose gender you wish to keep secret. The writer of a detective story might want to describe the actions of the bad guy without giving away their gender, whilst a teenager might want to talk about a friend of the opposite gender without prompting awkward questions.
    'Sie entered the room stealthily, hir heart racing for fear of discovery.'
    'I'm going to the movies with a friend - can I stay at hir house afterwards?'

  • To refer to transgendered people - that is, people who are not easily categorised as being either male or female, or prefer not to be. Some transgendered people prefer to be referred to using gendered pronouns, some prefer to be referred to using gender-free pronouns, and some don't express a preference. See Footnotes: Pronouns for one take on this.
    'George, or Georgina as sie sometimes likes to be called, is getting very sensitive about hir stubble.'
    'I thought sie was Aphrodite, but sie turned out to be more like Hermaphrodite.'

  • In descriptions of people who are somehow hypothetical. Of course, if the hypothesis includes a gender, there's no problem: you can refer to the average tampon buyer as 'she' without any major worries, but the average chocolate buyer causes more of a problem.
    'When a customer enters the store, sie is attacked by marauding sales assistants, until hir money is exhausted.'
    'If the dictator of some undiscovered island were to switch to a democracy, what would sie stand to gain by it?'

  • To refer to ships, countries, swords, and other things that have traditionally been referred to using female pronouns.
    'After WW1, Germany was left unable to attack hir enemies, or even to defend hirself properly.'
    'Arrr, respect the power of the sea, me hearties, for sie is a temperamental ally, and a merciless foe.'

  • To refer to conscious things that don't have a gender. This is basically restricted to science-fiction: intelligent robots, asexual aliens, and similar beings.
    'I heard a Dalek behind me - sie was shouting 'Exterminate!' in the rather daft voice they are cursed with.'
    'The computer is your friend. Don't refer to hir using pronouns, though - sie's not that friendly.'

  • To refer to all people, regardless of gender, if gender is not relevant to the discussion. Someone who sees gendered pronouns as inherently sexist might follow this approach.
    'Jane is a great cook: sie can whip up a mean chicken sorbet.'
    'Jack and I went down to the pub. Sie got completely drunk, so I had hir in the toilets.'

Other Languages

This Entry is primarily about gender-neutral pronouns in English, but there are of course other languages. Here's a look at some of them.


In French, all nouns have a grammatical gender, either masculine or feminine. The grammatical gender of a noun will normally match the biological gender, if any, of that object. All third person pronouns are gendered. For subjects they are:

  • 'il' - third person, singular, masculine
  • 'elle' - third person, singular, feminine
  • 'ils' - third person, plural, masculine
  • 'elles' - third person, plural, feminine

A group of both masculine and feminine nouns is referred to using 'ils', not 'elles', so a group of a thousand women and one man is referred to as 'ils'.


German has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Allegedly there is some connection between these genders and biological genders, but this may be just coincidence. For example, wives and young women are both neuter, while dogs are always male and cats are always female.

Grammatical gender has a big effect in German - there are even different words for 'the', depending on whether the relevant object is masculine, feminine, or neuter. Hence, Der Hund, Die Katze, Das Mädchen. Third-person singular pronouns (though not plural) are also affected by gender. For subjects, they are:

  • 'er' - third person, singular, masculine
  • 'sie' - third person, singular, feminine
  • 'es' - third person, singular, neuter
  • 'sie' - third person, plural (all genders)

For a vivid illustration of the horror that learning German can inflict on the innocent English mind, read The Awful German Language by Mark Twain. Needless to say, political correctness faces an uphill struggle in Germany.


Finnish only has gender-neutral pronouns, as does Hungarian and some other languages. Most Finns have a hard time learning to differentiate between 'he' and 'she' when learning English. To quote one Finn:

We know perfectly well how they're supposed to be used, but whether somebody else has a male or a female physique just doesn't feel too relevant a distinction to make when wondering if they've [sic] got that CD you were looking for.

Perhaps the Finns, for once, are ahead of the game.


We've already met 'sie' and 'hir' - now lets meet some of the alternatives, both new words, and new uses for old words.

Just use 'he' (or 'she')

SubjectObjectPossession (1)Possession (2)Reflexive
Universal MaleHe laughedI hit himHis face bledI am hisHe shaves himself

If 'he' is the problem, can 'he' be the solution? Some people propose using 'he' to refer to hypothetical people, in a similar way as 'man' and 'mankind' can be used to refer to humans in general (nowadays 'human' is more commonly used). So one might say: 'When the typical customer enters the store, his eyes should be initially drawn to the cut-price vases on offer.' A further proposal is to treat all people as male unless shown otherwise, so people of unknown or ill-defined gender would be referred to as 'he'.

Feminists tend to immediately reject this as patriarchal nonsense. Women who are referred to as 'he' because their gender is not known to the speaker may take offence, as may some transgendered people. Another problem is that sentences like the one above are already used to implicitly identify the typical customer as male, and it would be hard to get rid of this existing interpretation in favour of a gender-free one. Research has been done which shows that if you use 'he' in a gender-neutral sense up to 60% of your readers will misinterpret what you're saying.

... A player attempting a squop and missing lays himself open to being squopped himself by the wink he just played for ...
Winkers, as they like to be known, are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) male, which is why the male pronoun has been used throughout the previous discussion.

-Edited Entry on Tiddlywinks

Even where the correct meaning is understood, it still feels to some women that this language excludes them, whether deliberately or accidentally. It's even been used as a tool of sexism - it's not unheard of for governments, clubs and other groups to reinterpret sentences like 'every member must take off his shoes before entering the chapel' to mean that therefore female members may not enter the chapel! In 1984 the Minnesota State Legislature ordered that all gender-specific language, which only refers to one gender, usually males, be removed from the state laws. After two years of work, the rewritten laws were adopted. Only 301 of 20,000 pronouns were feminine. “His” was changed 10,000 times and “he” was changed 6,000 times.

SubjectObjectPossession (1)Possession (2)Reflexive
Dual (1)He or she laughed
She or he laughed
I hit him or her
I hit her or him
His or her face bled
Her or his face bled
I am his or hers
I am hers or his
He or she shaves himself or herself
She or he shaves herself or himself
Dual (2)(S)he laughed
S/he laughed
I hit him/her
I hit her/him
His/her face bled
Her/his face bled
I am his/hers
I am hers/his
(S)he shaves him/herself
S/he shaves her/himself

More formal literature often resorts to constructions like 'he or she', 'she or he', 'he/she', 's/he', '(s)he', and the like. Many people find these very cumbersome: how is one supposed to pronounce some monstrosity like '(s)he' without dislocating something? What sound does a forwards slash make? Obviously, constructions like '(s)he' are confined to the written word. Meanwhile, constructions like 'he or she', clearly does work, and is used in both speech and writing, in spite of its long-windedness and rather formal overtones, and there is an argument for keeping it on that basis alone. However, it doesn't work very well for some transgendered people, who object to the assumption that they must be either male or female, and cannot be both, a mixture, or neither. Perhaps 'he and/or she and/or it' would resolve this - abbreviated to h'orsh'it.

Another alternative is to use both 'he' and 'she' as gender-free pronouns, or even just use 'she'. In a book, the author might alternate using 'he' and 'she' between chapters or between different hypothetical people. This does have many of the problems as using 'he' as a gender-neutral pronoun, and readers are even more likely to interpret 'she' as referring to women only and excluding men, but this may well change if lots of people start using 'she' in this way.


SubjectObjectPossession (1)Possession (2)Reflexive
Singular 'they'They laughedI hit themTheir face bledI am theirsThey shave themselves
They shave themself
They shave theirself

The most common alternative is to refer to single people as 'they'. This Singular 'they' has a long history of use, and can be seen in the writings of Jane Austen and Shakespeare, amongst others. For example, Jane Austen writes in Emma:

[Frank Churchill] was still unwilling to admit ... that there would be the smallest difficulty in every body's returning into their proper place the next morning

Here we can see 'their' being used as the appropriate pronoun to match 'every body'. This seems to have been quite a common usage, as well as matching 'any body', 'who ever', 'nobody', and similar nouns Other uses of singular 'they', such as referring to specific people of unknown gender, were much less widespread at this time.

During the 18th century, teachers, publishers and other authorities on the English language cracked down hard on this use of 'they'. This was successful, but singular 'they' survived in the vernacular and has slowly recovered from that low point. Nowadays it's no longer restricted to the very specific places where Jane Austen uses it, and can be found in all good dictionaries. But even after all this time, it still faces opposition from people who believe it to be ungrammatical.

Unfortunately, there are a number of tricky issues with this apparently simple transformation, so the authorities of the 18th century were not totally without reason. Firstly, the reflexive form is a little uncertain, as shown in the table at the top of this section. Secondly, the plural verb forms are normally used with singular 'they': in the table 'shave' is used instead of 'shaves'. On the other hand, nouns should be singular, such as 'they are a sailor'. This all feels distinctly odd to some people.

According to linguists, 'they' is now a third person pronoun of indefinite number and gender. This means that it can refer to just about anything. This flexibility can be a boon, but it can also lead to a lot of ambiguity if the speaker isn't careful, and it makes English less precise. 'I had them in the back of my car' might imply a contortionist orgy. In the rare cases where there is confusion, it can be cleared up by using 'they all' to indicate a plural 'they', and some other method instead of singular 'they'.

P... p... p... Pick up a Pronoun

SubjectObjectPossession (1)Possession (2)Reflexive
Animate 'it'It laughedI hit itIts face bledI am itsIt shaves itself
One (classic)One laughedI hit himHis face bledI am hisOne shaves himself
One (modern)One laughedI hit oneOne's face bledI am one'sOne shaves oneself

Another proposed switch of pronouns is to use 'it'. This is already done sometimes for animals - one might say of a blue tit of unknown gender: 'I saw it with its mate by a small bush. It looked cold, so I gave it a rub.' Unfortunately, 'it' is normally used to represent things that cannot think and have no feelings - some people use it as an insult, and certainly it can be perceived as one. A taster of this can be obtained by referring to a newborn baby as 'it' within earshot of the mother - though this is not advised for safety reasons. Even favoured pets may be granted protection from 'it' status, if their owner so desires.

Authors can take advantage of a nifty avoidance technique by writing in the first and second person: 'I' and 'you'. A good example is the writing of Iain Banks - for example in Complicity or The Wasp Factory. Of course, writing using the first and second person has a dramatic effect on the whole flow of a book, so it's not a decision to be made lightly. The same technique is used for different reasons in text adventure games: 'you are in a maze of twisty corridors, all alike'.

If one doesn't mind sounding a little upper class, one can resort to using 'one'. Curiously, while 'one' used to decline as 'one/his/himself' (before this grew to be considered incorrect), there is now an alternative declension of 'one/ones/oneself'. This new declension was first proposed by Robert Baker in 1770, not without opposition. Unfortunately, 'one' currently has a very specific meaning: essentially an abbreviation for 'everyone'. This is a very limited use, though no less useful for that. Sadly, extending it can cause confusion, and unlike 'they' it has no history of being used in a wider sense.

Abandon pronouns, all ye who enter within

SubjectObjectPossession (1)Possession (2)Reflexive
Pronoun-freeSam laughedI hit SamSam's face bledI am Sam'sSam shaves Sam's own self

This approach is typified by the gender pronoun game. Simply avoid using any pronouns at all, and return to those long-winded sentences that drove us to use pronouns in the first place: 'Sam went to Sam's bedroom, and then Sam combed Sam's hair'. It's clumsy, but on the plus side, this means no new words or meanings, and everyone will understand what is being said.

Fortunately, a little rewriting can often reduce the number of pronouns needed, or indeed eliminate them completely. In the above example you could say 'Sam went to the bedroom and combed hir hair'. For example, some pronouns can be avoided by using the passive tense, so 'The teacher made hir point well' becomes 'The teacher's point was well-made'. The below article by Arthur Close provides many excellent techniques to reduce the need for pronouns, though sometimes they are difficult to apply, and readability can suffer.

In some contexts [previously described] approaches may be satisfactory. Frequently, however, the result is a document that is so 'self-consciously' gender-neutral that this detracts from its clarity and distracts the reader. We suggest that a better approach is to adopt a 'gender-free' style of writing - one that avoids the pronouns entirely.
-Gender-Free Legal Writing, Arthur Close, QC

The best solution, for some people, is to first determine the correct gender. So, don't speak about people unless you know whether they are male or female, which might explain the proliferation of 'a/s/l?'4 in internet chatrooms. This isn't always convenient, but it can be a very good solution for hypothetical situations. For example, Cryptographers routinely talk about Alice and Bob, where Alice is trying to send a message to Bob5, and in many cases this can solve the problem. As long as it's clear that the names are arbitrarily chosen and a mix of genders, readers will normally understand that the genders were chosen equally arbitrarily.

For ease of reading, the Researcher may assume at points in this Entry that hosiery is usually worn by women and viewed by men. Please treat this with the contempt it deserves. Some men may wear hosiery for personal or even medical reasons. Some men have no interest in the wearing of hosiery by themselves or others. Equally, there are women who don't wear it and women who admire others of either sex doing the wearing. The Researcher embraces all this but is too lazy to include the multiple pronoun situations it entails.
-Edited Entry on Hosiery

Neologisms and Slang

So many different people have suggested so many new sets of pronouns that it's simply not feasible to go through them all here. The first on record dates from around 1850, and there may have been even earlier ones that are not recorded. Most of these words are no longer used: the failed ideas of dead people. A complete list of all proposed sets, active and inactive, can be found at the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ, along with analysis of each set's usability.

SubjectObjectPossession (1)Possession (2)Reflexive
Gender-free (1)Sie laughedI hit hirHir face bledI am hirsSie shaves hirself
Gender-free (2)Zie laughedI hit zirZir face bledI am zirsZie shaves zirself

In practice there are three main sets in active usage at the moment. The first is sie/hir, which we met earlier. The second is a popular variant of this: 'zie' and 'zir'. Some people call these different spellings of 'sie' and 'hir', respectively. 'Zie' and 'zir' were introduced slightly later to correct the perceived female bias of 'sie' and 'hir'. It's hard to tell which is more popular - depending on where you ask the question, you'll get different answers.

SubjectObjectPossession (1)Possession (2)Reflexive
SpivakEy laughedI hit emEir face bledI am eirsEy shaves eirself
Spivak (alternative)E laughedI hit EmEm face bledI am EirsE shaves Emself

Looking to the future, the so-called 'Spivak' pronoun set certainly has the potential to become the gender-free pronoun set of choice. It's been used in a number of books, including The Joy of Tex by Spivak in 1990. It's also the favoured choice of people who have written about the subject, such as in Footnotes: Pronouns and in the Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ. Actual usage is currently lagging behind these influential figures, but this may change in the future.

Arguably the number of choices works against gender-free pronouns, delaying their uptake into mainstream English. But maybe it's only a matter of time before one of these sets of pronouns enters the dictionaries and is featured in the Daily Mail as a symbol of what's wrong with the world. Certainly their proponents hope so.

1A dot-com is a company that relies on the internet for most or all of its business2A P45 party is a party for people who have been made redundant recently and people who might want to employ them - a P45 being a form that British residents receive when their employment is terminated. They are apparently good places for getting dates.3In matters of taste there can be no dispute4a/s/l or asl is slang for 'What is your age? What is your sex? What is your location?'. The response might be 52/m/uk for a 52 year old man from the UK.5They also talk about Eve the Eavesdropper and Mallory the Malicious User - those crazy cryptographers, eh?

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