Generic antecedents are representatives of classes, referred to in ordinary
language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which humans communicate, and may be conveyed through a variety of ...
by another word (most often a
pronoun In linguistics and grammar, a pronoun ( abbreviated ) is a word or a group of words that one may substitute for a noun or noun phrase. Pronouns have traditionally been regarded as one of the parts of speech, but some modern theorists would not ...
), in a situation in which
gender Gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to femininity and masculinity and differentiating between them. Depending on the context, this may include sex-based social structures (i.e. gender roles) and gender identity. Most cultures ...
is typically unknown or irrelevant. These mostly arise in
generalization A generalization is a form of abstraction whereby common properties of specific instances are formulated as general concepts or claims. Generalizations posit the existence of a domain or set of elements, as well as one or more common character ...
s and are particularly common in abstract,
theoretical A theory is a rational type of abstract thinking about a phenomenon, or the results of such thinking. The process of contemplative and rational thinking is often associated with such processes as observational study or research. Theories may be ...
or strategic
discourse Discourse is a generalization of the notion of a conversation to any form of communication. Discourse is a major topic in social theory, with work spanning fields such as sociology, anthropology, continental philosophy, and discourse analysis. ...
. Examples (with the antecedent in boldface and the referring pronoun in italics) include "readers of Wikipedia appreciate ''their'' encyclopedia," "the customer ''who'' spends in this market." The question of appropriate style for using pronouns to refer to such generic antecedents in the English language became politicized in the 1970s, and remains a matter of substantial dispute.

Treatment in various languages

Many languages share the following issue with English: the generic antecedent is a representative individual of a class, whose gender is unknown or irrelevant, but pronouns are gender-specific. In languages such as English that distinguish
natural gender In linguistics, grammatical gender system is a specific form of noun class system, where nouns are assigned with gender categories that are often not related to their real-world qualities. In languages with grammatical gender, most or all noun ...
in pronouns but not
grammatical gender In linguistics, grammatical gender system is a specific form of noun class system, where nouns are assigned with gender categories that are often not related to their real-world qualities. In languages with grammatical gender, most or all noun ...
in nouns, normally masculine, but sometimes feminine, forms of pronouns are used for the generic reference, in what is called the ''generic'' usage of the pronoun. The context makes the generic intent of the usage clear in communication. * Example: An ambitious academic will publish as soon as she can. Unless there is reason to believe the speaker thinks ambitious academics are always female in the relevant context, the use of ''she'' in this sentence must be interpreted as a generic use. Traditionally both ''he'' and ''they'' were used for this purpose but, particularly since the nineteenth century, English style guides have frequently recommended the otherwise masculine ''he'' as a singular generic pronoun. Since the middle of the twentieth century the use of ''he'' for this purpose has been discouraged, partly because use of ''he'' is perceived as subtly biasing the listener to assume the antecedent is masculine. Various alternatives have been proposed.


In French both the singular and plural pronouns in the third person are marked for grammatical gender, and the antecedent always has grammatical gender. The masculine form of "they", ''ils'', is always used when referring to a plural and grammatically masculine antecedent, while for plural antecedents that are grammatically feminine the feminine form ''elles'' of "they" is used. Likewise, in the singular the third person pronoun ''il'' is used to refer to grammatically masculine antecedents and ''elle'' is used to refer to grammatically feminine antecedents. Thus, for both generic and non-generic antecedents, the natural gender of the antecedent, whether known or unknown, is irrelevant, as the deciding factor for the choice of a referring pronoun is the grammatical gender of the antecedent. Some French speakers advocate the use of created gender-free pronouns, such as ''illes'' or ''els'' for ''ils et elles'' ("they (masculine) and they (feminine)") and ''celleux'' or ''ceulles'' for ''celles et ceux'' ("those (feminine) and those (masculine)").

Mandarin Chinese

In spoken
Mandarin Chinese Mandarin (; ) is a group of Chinese (Sinitic) dialects that are natively spoken across most of northern and southwestern China. The group includes the Beijing dialect, the basis of the phonology of Standard Chinese, the official language o ...
, and in the
pinyin Hanyu Pinyin (), often shortened to just pinyin, is the official romanization system for Standard Mandarin Chinese in China, and to some extent, in Singapore and Malaysia. It is often used to teach Mandarin, normally written in Chinese f ...
form of writing Mandarin in the Latin alphabet, there is no distinction between "he" and "she" (''tā'' in each case), nor is there a distinction between "they (masculine)" and "they (feminine)" (''tāmen'' in each case). However, when Mandarin is written in characters, a gender distinction is made: ''tā'' is written as 他 or 她 for "he" or "she" respectively, with ''-men'' (们) added for the plural. For a plural generic antecedent such as "people (in general)", the referring pronoun will always be written as the masculine plural form unless the generic group is known to be inherently female (as in "women (in general)"), in which case the feminine form is used. For a singular generic antecedent such as "someone", the referring pronoun is always written as the masculine singular form unless the generic antecedent is known to be inherently female (as in "(an unspecified) woman").

Gender in English pronouns

If an antecedent is a thing, either specific or generic (such as a snowman), rather than a person, the appropriate pronoun to refer back to it is ''it'', and no difficulty arises. Likewise, if the antecedent is more than one thing, again either specific or generic, the pronoun ''they'' is used to refer back to it, and again no difficulty arises. When the antecedent is a specific person (whose gender is therefore known), the correct referring pronoun is either ''he'' or ''she'', depending on the person's gender. When the antecedent is a specific group of two or more people, the pronoun ''they'' is used, again without any difficulty arising. And when the antecedent is generic and plural, again the pronoun ''they'' is used and is not problematic, because ''they'' is not gender-specific. But difficulty arises in choosing a singular pronoun to refer to a single, unspecified human (whose gender is indeterminate, as the reference is equally to a hypothetical male or a hypothetical female). In particular, the overlap of generic use with
gender role A gender role, also known as a sex role, is a social role encompassing a range of behaviors and attitudes that are generally considered acceptable, appropriate, or desirable for a person based on that person's sex. Gender roles are usually cent ...
stereotyping In social psychology, a stereotype is a generalized belief about a particular category of people. It is an expectation that people might have about every person of a particular group. The type of expectation can vary; it can be, for example ...
has led to controversy in English. * A nurse should ensure that she gets adequate rest. * A police officer should maintain his fitness. * A dancer should watch her diet carefully. * A boss should treat his staff well. In these examples, some speakers might mean that all nurses are female, or that all bosses are male, while others might intend the pronouns as generic and hence gender-unspecific. Ambiguity arises from the possibility that the listener might interpret the meaning differently from what the speaker intended.

Approaches taken in English

Speakers of all languages use words ''both'' to make distinctions ''and'' to generalize: * Example of distinction: My mother thinks..., but my father says.... * Example of generalization: Parents believe.... * Example of generalization: Any r Everyparent believes.... What has become controversial among users of English is the choice of pronoun to refer back to a generalized, and hence generic, singular antecedent such as ''any parent'', or ''every parent''. Examples of accepted, disputed, and impossible constructions in English include: * All people get hungry, so they eat. Acceptable (''All people'' is plural.) * All people get hungry, so she eats. Incorrect if ''all people'' is the intended antecedent of ''she'' (singular pronoun cannot have a plural antecedent.) * Each one gets thirsty, so he drinks. Disputed (Is ''he'' generic, or are all members of the group male?) * Each one gets thirsty, so they drink. Acceptable Long in use (by
Shakespeare William Shakespeare ( 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English playwright, poet and actor. He is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's natio ...
, for example); condemned by some older sources, such as '' The Elements of Style'', but endorsed by many modern style guides. * Each one gets thirsty, so he or she drinks. Awkward (especially if used repeatedly) and recommended against by the ''
Chicago Manual of Style (''City in a Garden''); I Will , image_map = , map_caption = Interactive Map of Chicago , coordinates = , coordinates_footnotes = , subdivision_type = Country , subdivision_name ...
'', et al. * When a person is tired, she sleeps. Disputed (Is ''she'' specific or generic?) English guidelines before the 1980s supported the use of ''he'' as a singular pronoun that can refer to both men and women (generic usage). Use of the generic ''he'', however, has been decreasing since the 1960s. Many recent style guides discourage generic constructions or accept approaches other than the generic ''he''. Some writers prefer to alternate between male and female generic usage to provide clarity without the appearance of bias. Other speakers intentionally use female generic forms as a political or cultural statement against the conventional practice of generic use of the masculine form. A study of English language usage over the past twenty years shows that ''they'' is now the most common way that modern speakers and writers refer back to generic antecedents.Updating the New International Version of the Bible: Notes from the Committee on Bible Translation

Modern solutions

Speakers opposed to gender role stereotyping often use one of the following strategies. * A boss should treat her staff well. (Use of the pronoun ''opposite'' to expected gender) * Bosses should treat their staffs well. (Making the antecedent plural, thus requiring the use of a plural pronoun, which in English is not gender-specific) * A boss should treat their staff well. (Use of
singular they Singular ''they'', along with its inflected or derivative forms, ''them'', ''their'', ''theirs'' and ''themselves'' (or ''themself''), is a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. It typically occurs with an unspecified antecedent, in sente ...
, incorrect in formal English according to some sources, especially older or traditional ones, but accepted by others). * A boss should treat eir staff well. (Rare use of a Spivak pronoun; also see
gender-neutral pronoun A third-person pronoun is a pronoun that refers to an entity other than the speaker or listener. Some languages with gender-specific pronouns have them as part of a grammatical gender system, a system of agreement where most or all nouns have a v ...
.) There is historical precedent for the third option as well as popular contemporary usage. However, there are contemporary, as well as historical,
style guide A style guide or manual of style is a set of standards for the writing, formatting, and design of documents. It is often called a style sheet, although that term also has multiple other meanings. The standards can be applied either for gener ...
s that discourage this option.

Other alternatives

Options other than generic pronouns, rephrasing in the plural, or using ''they'' can be well suited to some contexts, but problematic in others. * A boss should treat her or his staff well. (Issues: cumbersome if overused, have to place genders in an order.) * If (s)he does, it is good. (Issue: written option only.) * Thon will be happy and so will they. (Issue: ''none'' of the invented pronouns – thon, xe, and many others – have been accepted into the language.)Dennis Baron
'The Epicene Pronouns: A Chronology of the Word That Failed'
, 2006.
The indefinite personal pronoun, '' one'', is suitably singular and unspecific with respect to gender; but it can take only "one" as an antecedent. * One takes care of one's own.


Some modern prescriptivists argue from the valid use of ''they'' in certain contexts, to making it valid or even mandatory in all. Other prescriptivists argue that generic ''he'' should be proscribed. Both these points of view have found many followers; however, they generally do not accurately describe the usage or rationale of the wide range of options common in the English language.

See also

* * * * * * * * *


Further reading

*Carlson, Greg. ''Reference to Kinds in English''. Ph.D. Thesis.
University of Massachusetts Amherst The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst, UMass) is a public research university in Amherst, Massachusetts and the sole public land-grant university in Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Founded in 1863 as an agricultural college, it ...
, 1977. * De Swart, H. "(In)definites and genericity." In ''Quantifiers, Deduction and Context''. Edited by M. Kanazawa and others. Stanford: CSLI: 171–199. *Wilkinson, Karina. ''Studies in the Semantics of Generic Noun Phrases''. Ph.D. Thesis.
University of Massachusetts Amherst The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst, UMass) is a public research university in Amherst, Massachusetts and the sole public land-grant university in Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Founded in 1863 as an agricultural college, it ...
, 1991.

External links

* Helge Lødrup. "Norwegian Anaphors without Visible Binders." ''Journal of Germanic Linguistics'' 19 (2007): 1–22. Available at http://journals.cambridge.org. * Anna Pycha, Constance Milbrath and Stephen Eyre.
Anaphora in African-American English
" Oakland: Linguistics Society of America, 2005. * Jeffrey T. Runner and Elsi Kaiser.
Binding in Picture Noun Phrases:
Implications for Binding Theory." In ''Proceedings of the HPSG05 Conference''. Edited by Stefan Müller. Lisbon: CSLI Publications, 2005. * Marta Luján.

" ''Círculo de lingüística aplicada a la comunicación'' 9 (2002). {{Formal semantics English usage controversies Gender-neutral language Grammatical gender Personal pronouns Grammatical number Language varieties and styles Pronouns Sociolinguistics