The third-person singular personal pronouns are chosen according to the natural gender of their antecedent or referent. As a general rule:
- he (and its related forms him, himself, his) is used when the referent is a male person, and sometimes when it is a male animal (or something else to which male characteristics are attributed);
- she (and her, herself, hers) is used when the referent is a female person, sometimes when it is a female animal, and sometimes when female characteristics are attributed to something inanimate – this is common especially with vessels such as ships and airplanes, and sometimes with countries;
- it (and itself, its) is used when the referent is something inanimate, often when it is an animal, and sometimes for a child when the sex is unspecified.
Lower animals are generally referred to using it; higher animals may more often be referred to using he and she, when their sex is known.
Note that pronoun agreement is often with the natural gender of the referent (the person or thing denoted) rather than simply the antecedent (a noun or noun phrase which the pronoun replaces). For example, one might say either the doctor and his patients or the doctor and her patients, depending on one's knowledge or assumptions about the sex of the doctor in question, as the phrase the doctor (the antecedent) does not itself have any specific natural gender. Also, pronouns are sometimes used without any explicit antecedent.
(When the antecedent is a collective noun, such as family or team, and the pronoun refers to the members of the group denoted rather than the group as a single entity, a plural pronoun may be chosen: compare the family and its origins; the family and their breakfast-time arguments. See also synesis.)
Problems arise when the referent is a person of unknown or unspecified sex. Traditionally the male forms he etc. have been used in such situations, but in contemporary English (partly because of the movement towards gender-neutral language) this is often avoided. Possible alternatives include:
- use of he or she, he/she, s/he, etc.
- alternation or random mixture of use of she and he
- use of singular they (common especially in informal language)
- use of it (normally only considered when the antecedent is a word like child, baby, infant)
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Famous quotes containing the words pronouns and/or personal:
“In the meantime no sense in bickering about pronouns and other parts of blather.”
—Samuel Beckett (19061989)
“The grief of the keen is no personal complaint for the death of one woman over eighty years, but seems to contain the whole passionate rage that lurks somewhere in every native of the island. In this cry of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself bare for an instant, and to reveal the mood of beings who feel their isolation in the face of a universe that wars on them with winds and seas.”
—J.M. (John Millington)