Sexism in Pronouns: He or She?

When the gender of a pronoun antecedent is unknown, or when the antecedent represents both genders, which third‐person singular pronoun should you usehe or she? Traditionally, he has been the automatic choice.

The diplomatic person keeps his opinion to himself.
The reader himself will decide whether he wants to accept Smith's premise.

Many people have objected to this one‐sided view. But remedying this problem isn't easy, and usage experts don't agree on one solution for eliminating gender bias in pronouns. Here are some ways of handling the problem:

  • When possible, rewrite sentences using third-person plural forms.

    • Diplomatic people keep their opinions to themselves.

  • Use he or she.

    • The reader will decide whether he or she wishes to accept Smith's premise.

  • Use he/she or s/he.

    • The reader will decide whether he/she (or s/he) wishes to accept Smith's premise.

  • Continue to use he throughout a piece of writing.

  • Use she instead of he throughout a piece of writing.

  • Use their even when the antecedent is singular.

    • A ticket holder must check their number.

This book recommends using third‐person plural whenever possible and he or she when the plural form is awkward or inappropriate. However, constant repetition of he or she slows the flow of a sentence, and you risk annoying your reader if you use the phrase too often. If you are writing for a class, you should check with the instructor about style preference on this issue.

The solutions aren't ideal, but they are less likely to offend than choosing either he or she exclusively and less confusing than alternating between them. These solutions also prevent the grammatical blunder of using a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent (the last choice shown above). Finally, he or she or the more bureaucratic‐sounding he/she is preferable to the unpronounceable s/he.