Does SO have any standards on the idea of gendered language? I believe that it is unwise to allow male pronouns to rule the day. Let me give you an example. I just posted a question where the original title was "Why did a user delete their own question?", wherein I intentionally used the vague (but technically/historically incorrect) pronoun "their" since I had no idea what the gender of the user was, and it doesn't matter for anyone's purpose anyway.

Almost immediately, an edit was suggested to replace "their" with "his". I thought that was inappropriate. I decided to use "his/her" since that seemed a little more inclusive, but that still isn't fully inclusive. Fully inclusive language might be my own personal goal – but how much is that considered a general goal here? I'm not necessarily suggesting editing every question to make them wonderfully gender-neutral, but it would be nice if I knew what the preferred option was. Or should I just take charge and make my own call where I can?

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    Okay, come on, why the downvote? – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 15:32
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    Regardless of gender politics, that was a horrible suggested edit. You should have rejected it instead of improved it; you gave Revious rep and taught him to do that more. – Wooble Feb 27 '14 at 15:34
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    @FrédéricHamidi, that is a common suggestion. I am trying to figure out what the standard is here. There is a body of literature and discussion on this topic outside of SO, so I was curious if there were relevant opinions here. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 15:43
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    Like it or not, "their" is becoming (or even has become) an acceptable gender-neutral singular possessive pronoun. – ale Feb 27 '14 at 15:54
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    @FrédéricHamidi you might enjoy Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Gender, part of a loose 'series' that began with ...Names – AakashM Feb 27 '14 at 16:03
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    @AlE. Singular they has been around for longer than people think. The 1300s by some estimates – Richard Tingle Feb 27 '14 at 16:03
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    7 downvotes on my question and 12 upvotes on the first answer! Wow, people clearly don't like when gender gets in the way of their complacency! How is this not a valid question about how to handle edits and language in general? – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:28
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    Apparently, programmers like binary in everything, include their genders. – ale Feb 27 '14 at 16:36
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    @AlE. that's the lesson I've learned here as well. How depressing. I've never even seen so many downvotes before. Getting marked as a duplicate is annoying, but I sort of get it. Since my question was clearly slanted or biased towards one approach, and consequently greatly downvoted, that tells you a lot about what people think about the opinion I implicitly expressed. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:44
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    At the end of the day, StackOverflow is a subset of society that is focused on technology questions. We have a modest goal here, that is to help people code. We can't distract ourselves – Adel Feb 27 '14 at 17:30
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    @patrickvacek I've been talking to a few people in chat and the prevaling view is that people are simply tired of this topic coming up; It does come up relatively regularly. Whether this is fair to you is questionable but it is at least a reason – Richard Tingle Feb 27 '14 at 18:55
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    For the sake of assuming the best in everyone, the user originally referred to using "their" does appear to be male (if you follow the links in their profile). It's possible that the editor thought they were helping by trying to determine the user's gender and then adding that information to your question to make it read more smoothly. – blahdiblah Feb 27 '14 at 23:07
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    Also, that user isn't a native speaker. They may not have understood the meaning of "their" in tne first place. (Of course, in that case they shouldn't be editing at all). – Pekka Feb 28 '14 at 0:06
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    Some of the downvotes may have come from the perception that you're suggesting imposing a system of "correct speech" on a community that (except for swearing) has very few fixed rules in how to write a contribution. I was initially under the same impression. But that's of course not what your post is about. I don't think the downvotes on this post are justified, but the duplicate question and the upvotes it received is indication enough that discussion about this is not fundamentally unwanted in our community. – Pekka Feb 28 '14 at 14:21
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    Well, here's an anecdote: My native language has just one gender-neutral pronoun for him/her, and I've preferred singular "they" for as long as I've known it's valid English. I just get all confused if I have to know or specify the gender when it's unknown or irrelevant. – hyde Mar 1 '14 at 20:22

Stack Overflow doesn't have nor need a standard for the correct way to spell the gender-indeterminate singular pronoun, anymore than it needs a standard for how "color" or "colour" is spelled (outside of code), or any other point of grammar.

The usage of the original poster should just be retained; edits to change them like the one you mention should be rejected as Too Minor or Invalid.

What pronouns you choose to use in your own submissions are up to you; there's no wider Style Guide for anything else in posts, either.

  • I appreciate that you actually answered my question and offered some substantive advice. While the wider discussion was fun, I clearly upset many people. Thank you for at least telling me what is "normal" around here, even if I disagree somewhat with how that plays out. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 18:05
  • I love how the two-character edit to this answer was not rejected as 'Too minor'. 😜 – Michael Scheper Feb 10 '19 at 23:42

All edits should be substantive edits.


The male pronoun is the English language standard, and has been for many hundreds of years. It's not an issue unless you make it one, it's the norm. Having said that there is really no need to edit pronouns for "gender" (in general), but there certainly may be for "number", since "their" is a plural. I do lots of edits for plurality issues, since it's just bad grammar, and "catches" you when you read the post, i.e. not smooth.

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    Completely agree - I hate bad grammar :-P – Doorknob Feb 27 '14 at 16:04
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    @Doorknob, since there is no standard of the English language, how do you define "bad grammar"? For example, I thought your comment was a joke at first, since I had been taught to say "poor grammar" when I was in school. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:09
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    Actually 'singular they' has been around for longer than people think. The 1300s by some estimates. Regardless using he or she when you mean 'someone' jars horribly. If people don't like 'singular they' they should use "a person", "someone", "the OP" etc – Richard Tingle Feb 27 '14 at 16:09
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    @LowerClassOverflowian: *you're. – Wooble Feb 27 '14 at 16:22
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    I also forgot to mention: beyond the issue of there not being a standard of the English language, I don't like the idea that "[i]t's not an issue unless you make it one." Talk about victim-blaming! Should I apologize that some people don't fit in some arbitrary restricted notion of a gender binary? – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:40
  • @patrickvacek, it's not arbitrary, it's a language. I'm learning Koine Greek right now, and you wouldn't believe how much more gender can play into a language. I also took a lot of French in the past and gender was a huge issue. English is actually very loose in this regard. – Lance Roberts Feb 27 '14 at 16:49
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    @LanceRoberts, but it is arbitrary! What does it matter? I know many languages use gender even more. I speak German and am well acquainted with the concept. However, the issue I'm concerned with here is how people are gendered in language. It's almost a cultural issue. Actually, I think German may be even more progressive than English in this regard. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:54
  • @LanceRoberts French, German etc however uses the word "gender" to mean two completely different things "biological gender" and "check digit" (girl is neuter for instance). Thankfully we don't have that issue and can focus soley on what is logical – Richard Tingle Feb 27 '14 at 16:55
  • @patrickvacek, language conventions came about for practical reasons over long periods of time. Just because we can't trace all the reasons, doesn't make it arbitrary. – Lance Roberts Feb 27 '14 at 16:55
  • @LanceRoberts Language genders are theorised to be a random "check digit"; that if you can only half hear something an extra 0,1,2 check digit (male, female, neuter) can avoid confusion – Richard Tingle Feb 27 '14 at 16:57
  • @RichardTingle, I agree that that seems to be the main function, though I'm sure nobody designed it to be that way. Regardless, gender does matter for grammar. – Lance Roberts Feb 27 '14 at 16:59
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    @RichardTingle, yes, languages changed, but obviously English hasn't when it comes to using male pronouns to refer to any unknown gender individual/group. There is a progressive element that is intentionally trying to change the language to advance their ideology, but no natural language evolution going on here (like it did when we lost "thee"/"thou" and just went to "you"). – Lance Roberts Feb 27 '14 at 17:05
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    @LanceRoberts What ideology is that? That people come in 2 genders? This is what I have never understood about the defence of "he". Why do you think "he" makes sense even when the person may be female (v.s any other construct, be that "a person", "he/she", "s(he)", [context dependant term such as "a soldier"] – Richard Tingle Feb 27 '14 at 17:08
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    @LanceRoberts, so kind of you to speak for your girlfriend. I also don't believe gender should be "hidden away and never mentioned" -- I asked this ridiculous question in the first place! I also disagree with using male pronouns out of convenience... I happen to find that unfair. When you say "our language has chosen...", who is "our language"? That's an odd personification. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 17:16
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    @LanceRoberts I get that we're not going to come to an agreement, saying "he" has always seemed wrong to me (not morally; actually, as in it is an incorrect statement) whereas we have several less incorrect alternative. It is also makes it very difficult when you want to say "he" when "he" actually is male. This is only going to get worse as more and more maleness cannot be assumed: "he'll be arrested if he goes in there!", "why?!", "its the womens bathroom", "so?", "He's a man", "O, I see! Why didn't you say". It'll happen if 'he' isn't reserved for its true meaning, not soon, but it will – Richard Tingle Feb 27 '14 at 17:19

People are correcting 'their' to 'his' or 'her' when they think it's inappropriate. They were learned in school that 'their' is inappropriate when referring single person, so if they read from context, that the asker is a single person, they correct such grammatical error.

I haven't seen any English grammar book stating that you can use 'their' referring to single person. Maybe I'm wrong because newer grammar books contains other rules, but in those I've learned English from (usually signed by Oxford Press, AFAIK) it was not the case.

In that particular case some user has done such a minor suggested edit, either in good faith or for rep hunting, correcting what he thought to be grammar error to what he thought is the only acceptable correct English. It hasn't change anything substantial in the post, as well as the further revisions trying to "reverse" the "damage". In my opinion there's no sense to spilt milk over it.

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    the singular they dates back to at least Shakespeare's time. And then from our own English.SE Is the “one's” and “their” used correctly? – user213963 Feb 27 '14 at 16:17
  • @MichaelIT I'm referring to the fact that I haven't met such usage in English grammar books that were used for teaching English internationally. This is what defines the standard according to which people are fixing grammar errors. After all, we speak English better or worse, but for most of us it's the language we've learned from books. – Danubian Sailor Feb 27 '14 at 16:21
  • @Łukasz웃Lツ, I am sympathetic to that, I promise, but as has been said before, "there's more to life than books!". Sadly, my knowledge of German was arguably rather weak until I went to Austria and heard how it was spoken there. Language grammar books are often rather conservative and don't always keep up well with new and growing trends. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:24
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    Because I once took an English Composition course with peer review and an ESL student who told me it's never acceptable to begin a sentence with the word "because", I don't put a lot of stock in English grammar books written for teaching English to non-native speakers. – Wooble Feb 27 '14 at 16:25
  • @patrickvacek but grammar is about the books, at the end. If you make any test, like FCE, I wish you success if you want to proove you haven't make a mistake, giving various blog resources as referrence. – Danubian Sailor Feb 27 '14 at 16:27
  • @Łukasz웃Lツ If you have time, I would suggest given a listen to this radio program about the history and use of English - this particular call in was about 'their' vs 'his' or 'hers'. – user213963 Feb 27 '14 at 16:31
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    @Łukasz웃Lツ, I'm sorry, I couldn't disagree more. "Grammar is about the books"? What books!? There is no standard of the English language, unlike, for example, German. Grammar is about communication and making yourself understood. I want to make sure no one is shut out by my choice of words. – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:31
  • @patrickvacek very interesting theory. So how, in your opinion, are tests like FCE checked? – Danubian Sailor Feb 27 '14 at 16:36
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    They're checked against someone's idea of what is correct, but there are plenty of disagreements and differences in what those ideas are. Certainly you are familiar with the differences between British English and American English? Or maybe even the idea of dialects within those countries? – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 16:41
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    Some style guides are OK with a singular "they" and "their". I don't like it much and don't like to write it, but I don't "correct" it when other do either. Likewise, I will thank you not to mangle my correct usage of "his or her"; I'd even prefer neologisms like "hir". – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Feb 27 '14 at 20:34
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    Hooray, someone finally mentioned "hir" and it wasn't even derisive! (Thanks @dmckee!) – patrickvacek Feb 27 '14 at 23:05

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