What are the correct pronouns for referring to someone whom I have never met in person when the gender is apparent?

28

5

I want to mention someone whom I know of only by references on the Internet such as forums and blogs(clarification: I want to write about the person, not to write to the person). This person uses a username of a woman’s first name with a lady’s photo as an avatar. Also, in some comments the person was referred as Ms by others.

Can I therefore by default use she/her/her/hers/herself for third-person pronouns when referencing this person, or should I instead use they/them/their/theirs/themself because this person is someone whom I have never myself met personally, but merely read about?

Is using words that have gender too personal for someone I haven’t actually met, like this person?

Is not using gender too impersonal for someone who to all appearances is female?

I hope that answers to this question will not be restricted by situations called out in the recent SE Code of Conduct “We also recommend that you don't make assumptions about people's gender and that you prefer gender-neutral language when unsure” (from https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/336364/what-does-the-code-of-conduct-say-about-pronouns/336368#336368).

That’s because I am not asking anything at all about the SE Code of Conduct. I am just asking what the most common “preferred” usage in regular use is for this situation in present-day English from a common-sense point of view of a native speaker of English.

Clarification: I myself have a Russian-language background but have been living in Australia for more than 25 years. In all those years, I was somehow unaware of the so-called “singular they” construction until the very recent discussions about it on Meta. I was never taught about this construction when I was learning English, so I am unclear about when native speakers instinctively use it or avoid using it.

Michael Freidgeim

Posted 2019-10-24T20:00:50.117

Reputation: 407

1

For reference (for all), we have a number of questions on singular they. Here are a few: How to deal with unknown genders in English?; Grammatical number agreement in a complex phrase using singular “they”; Is “singular they” widely used?.

– Em. – 2019-10-25T04:58:41.597

8I am not in the least surprised you were not taught about "singular they" 25 years ago. Even in Cambridge it wasn't that common then. – Martin Bonner supports Monica – 2019-10-25T09:32:41.813

9@MartinBonner That hasn't been my experience. Singular "they" has been commonly used in day-to-day speech as far back as I can remember (the 1980s) in the UK. I am surprised that it doesn't seem to be commonly taught to EFL students. It's the second time in as many days that I've seen someone on SE say that they weren't taught it when they learnt English. – Aaron F – 2019-10-25T13:43:22.447

5@AaronF Likewise here in the US. I grew up with singular they and the language I speak would be quite different without it. – snailplane – 2019-10-25T15:49:24.427

5

The 1975 Cambridge Univ. Press article Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular ‘they’, sex-indefinite ‘he’, and ‘he or she’ https://doi.org/10.1017/S0047404500004607 says the singular "they" remains widespread despite trying to suppress it for 250 years.

– DavePhD – 2019-10-25T17:33:25.467

2I noticed your question mentions themself, which it doesn't look like any of the answers have picked up on. Many speakers do have themself and I think it's becoming more and more common, particularly in speech, but at the moment most speakers expect themselves rather than themself. You can, of course, use whichever form seems most natural to you, but learners may want to be aware of the difference. – snailplane – 2019-10-25T17:59:25.857

If you write to the person, you will never use their third person pronouns, unless you quote someone else who was talking about them, in which case you would use the pronouns the other person used so as to not misquote them. In direct conversation (face to face, telephone, or written) you will only use second person pronouns which are currently uncontroversial. – CJ Dennis – 2019-10-25T23:17:00.323

@CJDennis, you are right. I’ve added the clarification, because a few people suggested to ask the person directly. But I cannot ask e.g. president Trump what is his preferred pronouns. He wouldn’t answer me. – Michael Freidgeim – 2019-10-25T23:24:48.940

i love "as far back as I can remember (the 1980s)". So young! In my youth I was taught that he/his/him were perfectly acceptable as gender-neutral pronouns. Life was simpler then. – Michael Kay – 2019-10-27T22:02:07.160

Answers

18

The general consensus (for the entire English speaking community) about the situation is at the moment in a lot of flux.

Historically (Early to 20th c Modern English), if you've seen or heard the person, then they present usually as one sex or the other (through clothes, name, or title) and you refer to them as either 'he' or 'she'. If you didn't know anything about the person, the default was 'he' (as prescribed in school and used by most people) or sometimes 'they' (Shakespeare and Jane Austen used this 'singular' they).

In the sixties (1960's) during second wave feminism, with genders becoming more common in roles that were by default the other gender (usually a female in a male role), it was becoming (more) apparent that assuming 'he' for an unknown was presumptuous and often wrong. So it became more common to see alternatives like 'he or she' or 's/he' or sometimes choosing 'she' instead of 'he'. This includes the singular 'they', but this is still today not that common but is usually preferred (as long as no one speaking knows). Also, some people devised a number of alternative pronouns intending to be some form of gender neutral, but these never seemed to catch on in the media. But if the gender was known, the classic corresponding pronoun was still used.

More recently, with both the advent of internet communication (where gender is more often not known or inferable) and the acceptance of people who don't identify entirely with the two genders, there's been quicker change, not always known to everybody. Though there has been more acceptance of the traditional singular 'they' (only for when gender is not known), there have been two further trends: 1) to use 'they' even when gender is known, and 2) to let people specify their own 3rd person pronoun (gendered, not gendered, a neologism, whatever it may be. So it is becoming more common to ask an individual which pronoun they'd prefer when others are talking about them. This is a fairly new situation (only the past few years). Because many people are aware of different habits but also many people are not so aware, there's a lot of variation (and a lot of variation in what's accepted). Some human resources (HR) departments in some companies in the English speaking world have written strict behavior rules on what pronoun to refer to people, but this is not universal (nor even that common).

This is a long explanation that doesn't necessarily directly answer your question because currently the situation is changing and different places do different things.

If you know absolutely nothing, 'they' or 'he or she' is currently most common ('s/he' doesn't seem to be used anymore in media). If you only know that they present as female, with a female name, and a female title (Ms.), it is most likely appropriate to refer to this person as 'she'. Few would find a problem with that. But if you find out that they prefer to be referred to as some other 3rd person pronoun, then common courtesy would suggest that you use this other pronoun.

To be clear, currently the great majority of people (more informal) and media (more formal) use 'he' for males and 'she' for females, and in the great majority of cases determining gender is easy (by first name, by appearance, or title).

Note: I'm attempting a descriptive answer, one that attempts to describe the history of what people actually do, and a minimum of what a language learner probably should do.

Mitch

Posted 2019-10-24T20:00:50.117

Reputation: 1 767

5The singular they was not created in the 1960's. it's very old and apolitical. – None – 2019-10-25T07:18:08.530

9"The general consensus (for the entire English speaking community)" - you mean SO community? Because if not, than this is plain false. – Davor – 2019-10-25T10:14:27.597

1@Davor Of course males and females are different, but using "they" instead of "he or she" avoids pointing out that males and females are different. – Tanner Swett – 2019-10-25T11:09:33.913

5@Davor What Mitch was saying with that sentence is that there is no consensus among people who speak english. – Carl Kevinson – 2019-10-25T16:42:25.323

1"not always known to everybody" -> also not accepted by everybody, to be fair. – JonathanReez – 2019-10-25T18:53:57.103

9"(Shakespeare and Jane Austen used this 'singular' they)." As far as I've seen, only when used after words/ideas like "everyone," "no one", "any one", etc. Can you show an example where they referred to a specific person with they? – HiddenBabel – 2019-10-25T21:27:01.700

4@HiddenBabel That's the point. Using "they" for a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant (e.g. a hypothetical person) has a long usage. Quoting from the answer: "If you didn't know anything about the person, the default was 'he' (as prescribed in school and used by most people) or sometimes 'they' (Shakespeare and Jane Austen used this 'singular' they)." – CJ Dennis – 2019-10-25T23:43:14.883

2

No, English speakers have a clear consensus. We use feminine pronouns for feminine people, and, almost universally, 'they' (the 'plural generic') for an antecedent of unknown gender. The masculine generic is not 'presumptuous and often wrong.' It was a common generic pronoun alongside 'they' before its usage declined. This usage is clearly described in dictionaries. 'He or she' seems to have been invented in the 70s. See better history and stats in: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/30455/is-using-he-for-a-gender-neutral-third-person-correct/222983#222983

– Dave Burt – 2019-10-26T08:46:31.853

9"'s/he' doesn't seem to be used anymore in speech or media" It wasn't ever used in speech, was it? How do you even pronounce it? – David Richerby – 2019-10-26T09:00:24.730

I recently read a 1950s manual for one of the first business computer systems, for managing Lyons' tea shops. It explained in a footnote that it used the terms "manageress" and "she" for the people who ran tea-shops, because most of them were women, and that the terms should be regarded as gender-neutral. – Michael Kay – 2019-10-27T22:10:30.743

41

You should use she/her pronouns. It seems obvious to you that she presents as female so there's no reason you should use other pronouns. To use they/them pronouns would imply her gender is ambiguous, which according to the evidence you cited, it is obviously not so.

Dapianoman

Posted 2019-10-24T20:00:50.117

Reputation: 611

1The usage of they/them doesn't imply that the person's gender is ambiguous (it can imply that OP doesn't know their gender, but that says nothing about the person and their supposedly ambiguous gender). There is nothing wrong with using they/them; but it is not required (which is what OP is currently suspecting). – Flater – 2019-10-25T13:17:18.680

17@Flater: Using they/them when the person is obviously presenting as a particular gender and has not asked you to use they/them can signal that you don't acknowledge their gender (e.g. maybe you think they're trans and you "disagree with" it). Whether this is actually at risk of misinterpretation is highly context dependent, but I would try to avoid it. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE – 2019-10-25T13:31:36.647

1@R..: I try to refer to any SE user by they/them by default, and thus regardless of whether their name/avatar reveals their gender. I don't ignore the information I see, I just don't go looking for it in the first place (because it doesn't matter on SE). That is in no way a slight at any person or their gender identity, and anyone inferring that it is, is engaging in wildly unfounded speculation and effectively looking to take offense for no justifiable reason. I think you're conflating genuine uncertainty ("them/they") with actual attacks on a person's identity (e.g. calling them "it") – Flater – 2019-10-25T13:36:40.757

7@Flater: Like I said, it's highly context dependent, and I often do the same especially on SE sites where the avatars are small, not present in comments, and easily overlooked. But if you do know and have an ongoing interaction online with a person, rather than them being a random interaction on SE, I would find it weird to call that person they/them despite being aware of the gender they present as. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE – 2019-10-25T13:39:48.360

2OP asked for a choice between two interpretations, but it looks like everyone is instead explaining one of those interpretations. “They” means indefinite gender, as most of the ‘answers’ say. It does NOT mean you haven’t met the person. – WGroleau – 2019-10-25T19:11:08.937

7Consider that there is a small number of people who are offended if you assume their gender - but a much larger number of people who are offended if you don't. – gnasher729 – 2019-10-25T22:12:57.953

6

You can use "she/her" to begin with given their gender is quite apparent to you as you say. If they correct you - that is they tell you not to use "she/her" and to instead use something they prefer - then you can by all means do that (if that is what you are willing to do). You can learn from what pronouns others are using to refer to them.

If you are a bit hesitant in using a specific set of pronouns, and you have a gut feeling that things can go south if you assume their gender, then you can just ask them - "What pronouns do you use/prefer?" or "How may I address you (Mr/Ms)?"

Aah.. in the SE community or in some forums/blogs, you can use "OP" if you really wanted to play safe.

My answer does not say you "should do this or do that". It gives you options on several fronts depending on the situation you might find yourself in. One will have to think logically about how to act if in a situation where there is uncertainty about a pronoun usage. If your intuition says it might not be wise to assume their pronoun/gender (based on social cues) then stop, wait, think, and then proceed.

May be you won't have to ask them: you could listen to what others say/use, you could ask their friends/colleagues, or you could check their social media. There are so many ways to figuring this out.

When everything fails you can consider asking them.

Yes, you may offend someone binary if you ask their preference, but then you can always say that is something polite to do just in case the situation was the opposite.

AIQ

Posted 2019-10-24T20:00:50.117

Reputation: 8 399

6I'm not so sure you should ask someone what pronouns they use. It seems like it would be very likely to cause offense. – Justin – 2019-10-25T14:48:52.007

1@ReinstateMonica Hello, well it definitely could - it depends on the situation and circumstances. If that person happens to identify as non-binary they will really appreciate if you ask them for their preference. If you assume their gender and use "she/her" or "he/him", they might actually get pissed. Everything is context, surrounding environment, and situation one finds themselves in. I mentioned in my answer that if OP is uncomfortable using "she/her" and has a gut feeling that things may go wrong, then OP can ask them. – AIQ – 2019-10-25T18:20:38.587

3I don't understand this at all. When I address you, the pronoun I use is the second person "you", not "he", "she", "they", "xir" or any other third-person neo-pronoun. We only use third-person pronouns to refer to people, not to address them. – Monty Harder – 2019-10-25T20:32:58.363

@MontyHarder By address I meant "Mr/Ms" - this is something OP talked about. – AIQ – 2019-10-25T21:32:55.037

3AIQ If that person identifies as "binary", they will be equally offended if you ask for "preferred pronouns". I might ask how to address you if your name was Sam or Pat or say a Japanese name where I have no idea how to interpret it; I wouldn't ask for "preferred pronouns", and asking how to address you gives you a perfect opportunity to tell me your preferred pronouns anyway. – gnasher729 – 2019-10-25T22:20:33.533

@gnasher729 Did you notice the use of "can" in my answer? I am not saying that one "has to" or "must" ask people for their pronouns; I am saying if one is not certain about it then they can. I clearly wrote *"If you are a bit hesitant in using a specific set of pronouns, and you have a gut feeling that things can go south, ..."*, which means that if OP cannot figure out their gender by all other means (e.g., from what other people are using or standard presumptions based on appearance) then they can ask them. – AIQ – 2019-10-25T22:51:24.997

@AIQ "Mr/Ms/Mrs" arehonorifics, which are not actually pronouns. Pronouns take the place of nouns. Honorifics are used in conjunction with proper nouns. – Monty Harder – 2019-10-28T15:52:09.033

@MontyHarder I know, I did not say they were pronouns. But asking them about those do give a person some insight of their pronouns - sometimes people also say their pronouns right after saying if they prefer Mr/Ms. – AIQ – 2019-10-28T17:39:42.360

5

I think its fair to say that I'm acquainted with English's singular they, having used it in my own writing and speech since the early 1980's. At least with the US usage, I am.

The question mentions being familiar with the person via the internet, that's actually kind of a big deal to the answer IMHO.

So as big of a fan of singular they as I am, in this case it would probably be best to use the pronouns that are used in those places. Pay particular attention to places where they (likely "she" in this case) would be easily capable of correcting the error if it were in fact an error. If this person is regularly introduced with "she" and hasn't corrected anyone for that, then presumably (at least at that time) she felt that was an acceptable pronoun.

And of course be prepared, if corrected, to apologize and change. That's the main thing really.

Singular they is really most appropriate when:

  1. The gender identity of the person being talked about is unknown.

For instance, if I'm writing a technical document and talking about user interactions, its always "they".

  1. The personal identity of the person being talked about is beside the point.

If I'm talking about something someone did, but it really isn't important that it was Sue who did it, just that someone did, then "they" is more appropriate. I'm not trying to direct the audience's attention to the identity of the person, just what happened (eg: pointing out a systemic problem that needs fixing). The "they" usage is a nice way of pointing out that I'm looking for a response that isn't targeted at the person in question.

A typical everyday use of this is when talking about someone's crappy code, the author in question is always "they", because I want to make it clear this isn't anything personal, just crappy code. If I make it personal, everyone's egos get involved, and I don't want that.

  1. The person being talked about specifically asked for that pronoun.

Again, this is no different than being asked to use a specific name or a title. If someone asks that you call them "Fred", or "Dr. Jones", and you insist on calling them "Fredrico", that's seriously disrepectful. Same goes for pronoun usage. If someone asks you to use "they", and you insist on not doing that, its seriously rude to them.

T.E.D.

Posted 2019-10-24T20:00:50.117

Reputation: 324

4

Personally I try to use (singular) 'they' by default, whenever I am writing (and most of the time when speaking).

I do this because:

Using 'they' all the time, means I don't need to think about it; saving mental effort.

It means I don't make mistakes / use the wrong gender (e.g., referring to our new boss as a he when they are female or vice versa)

It means I don't have to use that ugly he/she or s/he in my writing.

Using 'they' consistently means it can be friendly to trans queer etc folks (so you don't accidentally mis-gender someone, which can be easy to do while someone is transitioning). But be aware of how individuals react and adjust accordingly. For example, some trans folk may feel singled out when you use 'they', if they haven't seen you use 'they' in general; and will feel more comfortable if you used 'he' or 'she' (This goes for everyone actually).

Finally, and probably most importantly, I find it makes my writing clearer. Say you are describing a story about two people Alex and Blair and how they are using a computer system. I just use 'they' for the pronouns. However this means you use singular they to refer to both people, which is confusing. So then I go and edit the text to either use each person's name (Alex or Blair), or use their role/job title (customer / admin user). Once I have done that, the piece is much clearer than if I had just used he/she.

So for me using 'they' is just the easiest and best writing.

Bonus: Rather than using he/she/they try to use the person's actual name. This helps you build rapport with them, and is clearer still.

So in OP's case, I would try to refer to them by their name when you can and it makes grammatical sense. Otherwise if makes sense use 'they' as the general default. However, when you interact (or observe an interaction) with them personally, and it becomes apparent they have a preference for either 'he' or 'she', then use that.

DarcyThomas

Posted 2019-10-24T20:00:50.117

Reputation: 177

3"It is friendly to trans folks" - well, sometimes. Other times, using "they" is seen as insulting, and results in you being accused of deliberately not using the preferred pronouns, even when you do not know what those pronoun are. As with many things, it varies from individual to individual, per personality and prior experiences. – Chronocidal – 2019-10-25T13:23:36.803

7I am seconding @Chronocidal's point. As a trans woman, I want to be treated as you would any other woman, cis or not. If I detect that I'm being treated differently, that will annoy me, and while a quick polite conversation typically resolves this, it is not safe to assume that we all would be cool with "they". In this answer, it looks like the usage is consistent across everybody, so kudos to that. But it would be friendly due to it being consistent with treatment of people in general. Point is, a lot of us just wanted to be treated as normal, so if that is your normal usage, go for it. – Rebecca Nelson – 2019-10-25T15:12:14.623

1@RebeccaNelson Fair enough. Yeah I try to use 'they' for everyone. However if it was the first time we had met, someone like yourself may not know that. If I know that someone has particular pronouns which they prefer I would try to make sure I use them. I also know of one trans person who he came out wanted to use male pronouns until they felt she was transitioned enough. Humans are funny beings. Don't fit neatly in boxes at all. – DarcyThomas – 2019-10-25T20:02:48.580

3Perhaps change that to "Is friendly to gender-nonconforming folks"? In the two instances of people I know personally who prefer that pronoun set, that is the reason. – T.E.D. – 2019-10-25T20:02:57.477

1If Jane wears a dress then you use "she". Which is correct for a transgender woman called Jane and wearing a dress, and for a not-transgender woman as well. – gnasher729 – 2019-10-25T22:22:57.860

Your answer is mostly about use “they” vs “he or she”. My question was about using “they” or “she” referring to the person presenting as a woman. – Michael Freidgeim – 2019-10-26T23:59:10.850

@MichaelFreidgeim I guess what I am saying, is try to use a persons actual name where applicable, other wise in general try to use 'they' as your go to pronoun ( and elaborate with their role etc when needed to make grammatical sense ), but tailor to individuals on a case by case basis, based on your interactions with the individual. (I will try to (re-)work that into my answer) – DarcyThomas – 2019-10-27T04:33:46.380

2@gnasher729 What if they are wearing trousers, or what if they are wearing a kilt (perhaps with a sporran!)? – DarcyThomas – 2019-10-27T04:37:36.040

@gnasher729 I know a professional musician (personally, specifically, and well enough to have a standing invitation to stay at the home of - not just a general "this person is known to me") who, for some of his stage shows, wears a wedding dress and makeup. If you used "she", then you would probably be corrected with a joke - but you would be corrected to use "he". Sometimes, a man in a dress is just a man in a dress. – Chronocidal – 2019-10-29T17:51:20.557

@Chronocidal I think gnasher’s point could have been stated more explicitly, keeping in mind that much of our community is still learning English, but man in a dress would likely not be offended by be addressed as “she” while a masculine looking woman in a dress could be offended by being referred to as “he”. The goal is to be polite, not to win a bet on which pronoun is correct, so going with the choice someone appears to be inviting you to use will be the easiest mistake to apologize for if you get it wrong. – ColleenV – 2019-10-29T18:57:31.317

3

There's no one right answer to this, but if the person is obviously presenting as a particular gender and has not specifically told you to use certain pronouns, I would lean towards using the typical ones for the gender they present as (she/her in your case).

Singular they/them is perfectly valid both as someone's correct pronouns, and as a generic set of pronouns when you don't know gender or want to speak generally about a non-specific person who could be any gender. However, if there is a particular person you're talking about and they are obviously presenting as a particular gender, using they/them could be interpreted as a signal that you don't acknowledge their gender. For example, maybe you think they're trans and "disagree with" their gender. Whether this is actually at risk of misinterpretation is highly context dependent, but I would try to avoid getting in such a situation.

Most importantly, if you do get it wrong and the person seems unhappy, apologize without making a big deal out of it and note the correct pronouns to use for them in the future.

R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE

Posted 2019-10-24T20:00:50.117

Reputation: 897