How to deal with unknown genders in English?



When I start a sentence with words like "someone" or "somebody", I don't know how to choose the right pronoun at the end of the sentence.


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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 1 904


Related question:

– ColleenV – 2018-06-15T16:07:13.837



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 (this wouldn't work with the baby example though). 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.

Michael Rybkin

Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

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43In many circles, them is at least allowable even in formal settings and may be preferred, as it is more inclusive of folks who don't fit "he or she". For example, singular "they" is preferred by the house style at the scholarly journal I edit. – 1006a – 2018-06-16T00:07:13.583


"He/she" is not the most inclusive term (but to be fair it is more inclusive than "he"). Not everybody identifies as strictly male or female. A good portion of genderqueer (or non-binary) people—but certainly not all of them—prefer pronouns other than "he" or "she".

– Laurel – 2018-06-16T05:10:45.873

1Maybe this should be a different question, but I'm interested in hearing if native speakers make a distinction between words like "anyone" / "someone" and "the baby" / "the friend" here. I mean, are there people who would say "him or her" for the friend, who does have a gender, but "them" for somebody, since the word "somebody" does not imply gender? – Mr Lister – 2018-06-16T09:05:10.783

1I've found that older people tend to be thrown off by the singular "they", while younger people don't even notice. – Schrodinger'sStat – 2018-06-16T14:02:58.830

2Oh, another good option sometimes is to use more specific language, e.g. "you should thank your friend." It works a good portion of the time. – Kat – 2018-06-17T14:46:26.650

1@Brythan I'm not afraid of being accused of sexism, racism, phobia, judging ...etc. There are some people who have no brains and always take speech out of context and start accusing other people without letting them express their opinions freely. – user2824371 – 2018-06-18T20:11:30.687

I think the goal should not be to avoid being accused of sexism but to avoid offending people unintentionally. Even someone who doesn't care what others think of them might have enough empathy to imagine what it might be like to be a member of a minority group. – hguler – 2019-03-02T21:24:48.700


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.

Michael Harvey

Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 31 750


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."


Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 1 428

Switch off? Do you mean alternate? – Michael Harvey – 2018-06-15T22:32:09.643

1While singular vs plural they can be ambiguous, we've gone without the distinction for "you" for centuries, and any pronouns are always potentially ambiguous anyway. – matty – 2018-06-16T04:45:09.443

5Please don't switch between pronouns referring to the same person within the same text: That can get really confusing. Pick one and stick with that. Mixing pronouns between different examples (having both male and female users represented) is a good idea, though. – Llewellyn – 2018-06-16T09:34:17.820

You can avoid redundancy with a little rewording: *"I need to know if the user did action X or Y. If he or she did the former then they should take corrective action A. If the latter (action Y) then corrective action B should be taken"* – Mari-Lou A – 2018-06-16T11:09:39.070

@Llewellyn yes that is precisely what mean. – Daniel – 2018-06-17T05:42:23.410

Although I've alternated genders in my own writing, this is trickier than it seems at first. One quickly finds oneself appearing to make stereotypical assumptions and starts overcorrecting. I think that consistent use of "they" is a better solution. It may sound strange to our ears because we didn't grow up hearing it, but it's a more inclusive way of speaking and writing. If everyone switched to using "they", it would start to feel natural within a year or two. – hguler – 2019-03-02T21:44:23.137


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.

Anything else is a political agenda that is impossible to enumerate or impractical for the spoken English in the world to adopt .


Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 151


Specifically regarding the baby name question, while in general "it" is frowned on when referring to a baby, "is it a boy or a girl" is generally not seen as rude or offensive.

And when asking the name question you can avoid the pronoun entirely by just asking "Have you decided on a name yet?" or "What name did you decide on?"


Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 636

2I agree, except that "Have you decided on an name yet?" seems awkward since once the baby has left the hospital, everyone will assume the baby will have (must have) already been named. – Kevin Fegan – 2018-06-16T23:55:08.353

@KevinFegan updated to address your comment. – barbecue – 2018-06-18T14:04:19.590

@KevinFegan Why do you say that? – Azor Ahai -- he him – 2018-06-18T15:58:10.023

@AzorAhai - Here in the United States, the "birth certificate" has the name of the baby (among other details) is completed at the hospital after birth. It is required that you name the baby before leaving the hospital. As far as I know, this is by law everywhere. Of course States and County and Local governments might have slightly different wordings of the law for this. In any case, if you happen to see a mother and her new baby out and about, asking "Have you decided on a name yet?" is odd because everyone will know the name was decided before they left the hospital (or sooner) ... – Kevin Fegan – 2018-06-20T10:50:47.713

... In the past, not knowing the what the new baby's sex/gender will be, most parents went to the hospital prepared with a few boy/girl names. Today, it's common that parents will know the sex/gender ahead of time, and can decide on a name early, even before the baby is born. In any case, they wouldn't delay choosing the name because they can't leave the hospital until they decide on the name, and they don't want to be rushed at the end to pick a name without much thought. The 2nd option in the answer "What name did you decide on?" is fine. – Kevin Fegan – 2018-06-20T10:58:30.347

@KevinFegan I know what a birth certificate is, lol. In my state, I'm pretty sure that's not the law. Or at least it wasn't when I was born. Plus, not every baby was born in a hospital, my sister wasn't. I mean there's a little bit of wiggle room, no one hasn't named their 6 month old, but I don't think the baby is out of the hospital = has a name. Besides, plenty of people want to meet their baby before picking out a name. || I think either phrasing is fine, although you're right, the first one is a bit weird. – Azor Ahai -- he him – 2018-06-20T16:31:31.283

Not sure why there's so much objection to the perfectly legitimate question "Have you decided on a name yet?" Five seconds of Googling shows how commonly it's used, and it's neither weird nor confusing. – barbecue – 2018-06-20T19:20:48.063


If you want to use a single pronoun in each case, here are the ones to use:

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

I felt that somebody was in the garden but I did not see them.

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

Speaker 2: You should thank them.

Congratulations on your new baby! What's its name?

Wikipedia says:

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.

When talking about a single person whose gender is unknown, use they. It has never been incorrect to do so despite some grammarians saying so from the 19th century onwards. It's rude to call a person it, except for young children, which is why we use it for babies but not for people. We use it for all animals, including pets when their gender is unknown.

In the past, gender-neutral he / him could have been used instead of they / them, but nowadays, he / him is almost universally masculine only.

Some people try to avoid the use of singular they / them by replacing it with he/she / him/her or he or she / him or her, but this becomes wearying quite quickly. It's just as fine to use they / them. If you find out the person's gender in the middle of a conversation, you should immediately switch to the correct gendered pronoun, except for babies, where it's still OK to call them it.

  • baby boy - he
  • baby girl - she
  • baby - it (even if you know the gender)


Honey, the baby's crying again. Would you check to see if it's hungry?

You should note that there are many other languages that use some plural pronouns for the singular, such as French with vous, which is grammatically plural (as is they) but can be used as either singular (polite) or plural second person, as they can be used as either singular or plural third person.

CJ Dennis

Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

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The "it" in the last example seems to refer to the nappy / daiper, since you change the nappy, not the baby. – James K – 2018-06-17T08:30:48.160


In spoken English, I would recommend they/them/their, or sometimes he.

You should (almost) never refer to a person as it. Doing so indicates you do not consider that person to be human. In my experience, it may acceptably be used of a baby, probably precisely because we do not perceive infants as people. (Infants are people, but our perception may not properly respect that.)

Traditionally, he may be used in all cases as a default gender. The problem is that the gender is not truly neutral. Take your "friend" example:

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

Speaker 2: You should thank him.

There have been so many times over the years where I have heard a conversation like this and automatically think, "Are you sure it was a him? Maybe it was a her," even though I know the generic he is being used! (I am a native speaker.)

So, although acceptable, the generic he will feel most awkward to English speakers when (in their own minds) it makes a real difference if the person being referred to is a man or a woman. Here's a rule of thumb. Imagine you found out if the person was a man or a woman. If that knowledge greatly changes your perception of the situation, then you should probably avoid using the generic he; otherwise, the generic he should be fine.

There may be other reasons not to use the generic he. It does have a bias toward the masculine, so that may get you into trouble with people who are sensitive to issues of sexism.

As a simpler alternative, use they/them/their instead, which are truly gender-neutral. They are perfectly acceptable in informal settings, and have also become acceptable in written English, as a way to avoid the disadvantages of other alternatives.

You can use they/them/their in almost all cases, but do be aware that these are technically plural, not singular. (Nevertheless, they are understood to be singular when used in this manner.) This has the potential to cause confusion in some cases, but unfortunately I can't think of any examples right now.

I would personally recommend against using he or she. This construction is fairly awkward in spoken English, and I think you will find it unwieldy in written English.

The alternatives he/she and s/he only apply to written English, and I would recommend against them as well. A trend in modern English is to simplify, minimizing the use of punctuation such as parentheses, periods in abbreviations, etc. Regular use of slashes is inconsistent with this goal.


Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 131

1The problem with the generic "he" is that when one hears it, one does not think of a woman. This may not bother men, but the effect on women is they feel systematically excluded from every activity they read about. Since most good writers strive to involve their reader in their writings, switching to "they" is worth the slight discomfort one feels when one first begins to use it. – hguler – 2019-03-02T21:41:50.120


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 / infant's name?


Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 628

I think this can be an effective workaround, but I also think them / their works just fine for most of those sentences. – J.R. – 2019-02-27T12:19:26.897


I like the pronouns invented by Kate Bornstein -- hir for him/her, and ze for he/she. It's an idea whose time has come.

See Kate Bornstien's column and the Huffington Post. While I don't have a date, this article describes hir and ze as non-gendered pronouns. It's the best solution I've seen yet.


Posted 2018-06-15T15:23:54.797

Reputation: 87

7It's an idea whose time has come multiple times previously and failed to take hold each time. Solving a language problem by making the language more confusing is simply not going to work. – barbecue – 2018-06-18T18:25:19.877