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pronoun agreement: gender

Personal pronouns must agree in gender with the nouns they refer to (called their antecedents). In English, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.

Agreement in gender is not an issue with third person plural pronouns, since the plural pronoun they and its forms (them, their) are gender-inclusive; they automatically agree with antecedents of any gender.

But the singular pronouns he (him, his), she (her, hers) and it (its) are gender-specific, so we must be careful to choose a singular pronoun that matches the gender of its antecedent:

  • Ivor dragged himself over the rocks, scraping his knees. [masculine]
  • I saw Nicole. She was taking her dog for a walk. [feminine]
  • The dog pricked up its ears when it heard the voices. [neuter]

Agreement with gender-inclusive words

Indefinite pronouns (everyone, anyone, etc.) and many nouns (member, student, performer, child, person, etc.) are gender-inclusive: they can refer to both males and females.

Because English has no third person singular pronoun that is gender-inclusive, we have to use he or she (him or her, his or her) to refer to a gender-inclusive word that is singular:

  • No witness could recall everything he or she had seen.
  • Everyone has submitted his or her forms.

However, the inclusive structures he or she, his or her, etc., can become awkward if repeated throughout a text. There are several alternatives to using he or she. Two of the most popular ones are shown below.

Solution 1: Make your antecedent plural, and use they

  • No witnesses could recall everything they had seen.
  • All the members have submitted their forms.

Solution 2: Reword the sentence to get rid of the pronoun

  • No witness could recall the incident completely.
  • Everyone has submitted the necessary forms.

Note: In speech and informal writing, the plural pronoun they (them, their) is often used with a singular antecedent: e.g. Everyone has submitted their forms. In formal writing, this solution is not universally accepted, so it is best to avoid it.

For more alternatives to using he or she, see the article GENDER INCLUSIVITY: PRONOUNS.