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Gender-specific pronoun

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The gender-specific pronouns of a language distinguish between male and female people (and often of animals as well). The English language has eight third person singular personal pronouns: he, she, him, her, his, hers, himself and herself. The other English pronouns do not make this distinction, i.e., they are "ungendered", although all eight pronouns have been also used in a gender-neutral sense: see "generic usage" below.

This meaning of gender to mean gender role or sex should not be confused with the grammatical gender of other languages such as French and Spanish, which assign gender to nouns such as la maison or le crayon (see grammatical gender).

They decline as follows:

Subject Object Possessive Adjective Possessive Pronoun Reflexive
Male He laughed I hit him His face bled I am his He shaves himself
Female She laughed I hit her Her face bled I am hers She shaves herself

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Ships and Countries

Traditionally ships have been referred to using the feminine pronouns, as well as countries and oceans. The origins of this practice are now unknown, and it is currently in decline.

In March 2002 The British newspaper Lloyds List[?] announced that it would start referring to all vessels as 'it', but subsequently reversed its decision after receiving letters of protest.

See also:

Generic Usage

Usage of him and his to refer to a generic member of a mixed sex group was prescribed by manuals of style and school textbooks from the early 19th century until around the 1960s. It was called 'generic' or 'universal'

  • The customer brought his purchases to the cashier for checkout.
  • In a supermarket, everyone can buy anything he needs.
  • When a customer argues, always agree with him.

Gender-specific pronouns are also sometimes used when most members of some group are the same gender, with a small number of members of the opposite gender.

  • A secretary should keep her temper in check.
  • A boss should respect and listen to his employees.
  • Every hairdresser has her own style.
  • A junior doctor is at the bottom of his profession.

Compare the word man when used refer to humans in general.

  • All men are created equal.
  • That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.
  • Man cannot live by bread alone.

Generic use and Non-sexist language

Some people feel that this can cause a variety of problems. In particular, many feminists feel that the male pronouns imply a masculine referent, which they argue would tend to exclude women unfairly (see sexism).

Recently, some people also use female pronouns in a generic sense, to draw attention to feminist issues. Some authors recommend alternating between the use of the generic male and the generic female, perhaps on a per-chapter basis.

Some people use compound forms to emphasize the possibility of the referent having either sex: such as he or she, him or her, his or her or himself or herself. Any of these forms could be reversed, so as not to imply that males had priority: she or he, her or him, her or his or herself or himself. There are also abbreviated forms, such as s/he and him/herself. These forms can seem clumsy, and a few transgendered people object to the assumption that they must be either male or female, and cannot be both, a mixture, or neither.

Government Usage

It is 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 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.

By contrast, the Constitution of Ireland, describes the President of Ireland throughout as 'he', yet the two most recent presidents were women; in 1997, four of the five candidates in the election were women. Efforts in a court case to argue that 'he' excluded women were dismissed by the Irish Supreme Court, which ruled the term 'gender-neutral'.

See also:

singular they
gender-neutral pronoun



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