Numerous times I want to refer to the OP, and I found myself writing (s)he or his/her.

What is the right way to do so?

Maybe the answer is that I should continue using the (s)he, but it would be great if someone answered this, because I ask myself every time.

Note: I am not implying anything about genders, but since I am not a native speaker, I am trying to learn how I should write, please.

Edit: My innocent question now appears to get revived because of What does the Code of Conduct say about pronouns?

  • 8
    What's wrong with using "they"?
    – Jenayah
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:25
  • 19
    Use they and call it a day ...
    – rene
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:26
  • 11
    But the OP is one person @Jenayah, in the scope of a specific post. For example now, the OP is me. So you would say the post is his, in my case. I don't see how I could refer to the OP with they...
    – gsamaras
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:26
  • 34
    @gsamaras Singular they. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:27
  • @Xufox I was hearing that in general too, thank you for sharing the knowledge!
    – gsamaras
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:31
  • 1
    @gsamaras How does gender matter at all? Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:33
  • 3
    That's why I asked this question. Because it should not!
    – gsamaras
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:34
  • Related: The use of gender-specific pronouns on Stack Overflow. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:37
  • 5
    @πάνταῥεῖ of course gender doesn't matter! That's why I asked this question, so that I learn how I should comment, etc., without implying anything that would make another person feel uncomfortable. Xufok, a cross duplicate, but I couldn't find it, guess I wasn't using the right keywords, thanks!
    – gsamaras
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 10:43
  • 16
    @gsamaras Singular they is a perfectly valid construction, and is often the easiest, if you don't know the pronouns used by whoever you are speaking with. He/she kind of works, except you are also ignoring the fact that he/she doesn't include anyone non binary.
    – user168476
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 11:06
  • 6
    @Ash I hoped that you told that to Professor Oak when he asked whether you are a boy or a girl... :) Thanks for the tip. Despite the downvotes, I feel that I asked a good question, since this whole thing really varies geographically, and it's good for us that are left behind to catch up!
    – gsamaras
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 11:11
  • 5
    Use "they" or "OP". It's that easy.
    – user473022
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 14:21

5 Answers 5


My rule of thumb is a combination of @jknappen's and @Glorfindel's suggestion:

  • If you can get by using just OP (e.g. "OP tried to do that already", "OP's computer is broken"), stick with that and nobody can complain. (Well, people can always complain but you know what I mean).
  • If not, use singular they (e.g. "OP said their computer is broken"). It may take you a bit of getting used to at first, but after a while you'll be ok with it. People might still complain about that, but extremely rarely and it'll be a weak complaint because they is rather non-specific.

I feel this minimizes assumptions about people and the chances for complaints by anybody.

  • “Παν μέτρον άριστον", and this now sets the sweet spot between the two terms.
    – gsamaras
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 17:11
  • "Pan metron ariston"... "All in all excellent"? Thanks, but I don't deserve any praise, I didn't invent this; a lot of people do basically something like it. Also, on an unrelated note - I'm not seeing the bullets I used in my post. Weird.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 21:44
  • I would roughly metaphrase "Pan metron ariston" as "Balance is the optimal virtue". :) True, I see no bullets, but if I click on "edit" on your post, I see your two *.
    – gsamaras
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 21:57
  • 1
    @gsamaras: There's a new CSS bug apparently.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 21:58

When you are unsure how to address OP or other users on the site,

Use they/them/their.

Because there are other gendered people besides male and female and pronouns besides he and she. E.g Ze/Hir, sie. These are personal gender pronouns and are gender neutral. Taking too much time to decide what to call OP will cause a waste of time. This time can be used for writing constructive comment, question or answer. This usage of "they" will also prevent problems in miscommunication. Thus avoids users feeling bad if we call them what they are not. This is not only about gender but there are other advantages too.

  1. To show respect (if they are elders or not. Giving respect is always fine. Who doesn't want respect?).
  2. When they are unsure about gender.
  3. When that is someone's preferred pronoun (Some prefer "they" for some reasons. Their personal preference. No harm in calling that).
  • 6
    @DonThermidor_LobsterMobster it might be helpful to expand on why. Also to put the pronouns you'd prefer in your user profile; relatively few people can accurately determine a lobster's gender from a photo.
    – jonrsharpe
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 14:28
  • @rene Ze/hir, Sie, tey etc.,
    – Nog Shine
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 17:28
  • 10
    I find that "they" often creates confusion rather than removing it, particularly when the question involves other people besides the OP (as happens on Workplace, Parenting, Interpersonal Skills, and other sites that aren't about code). Best to write around the problem -- "the OP", "you" (in an answer), $username, etc. Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 21:12
  • 4
    When used excessively to refer to a strongly-identified individual (as opposed to a conceptual individual where one would be appropriate), they tends to sound really... off. Consider the following sentence describing the TV show "Doctor Who": The Doctor is a Time Lord. They travel through time and space on a vehicle they call the Tardis. Compare that with the original use of singular they, such as in the sentence When one leaves the bathroom, they should always wash hands. Which one sounds more strange? The simple fact is, they is not a very good gender-indefinite singular pronoun. Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 2:33
  • @MonicaCellio This "they" works same as he/she but gender neuter. The scenario is when we are referring OP or the other as a third person and not as second person. When we are writing in an answer is using a second pronoun as you.
    – Nog Shine
    Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 4:17
  • 6
    @NogShine the number mismatch is a cognitive speed bump for some of us. That's more significant than the gender neutrality to the affected people. You make a sentence actively unclear by breaking number. Obviously people disagree about this; some people brush off number mismatch because to them it's more important to leave gender unspecified. I'm not trying to start that argument for the millionth time; I only commented to point out that there are better ways to avoid specifying gender than to break number, if clear communication is a goal. Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 0:44

I found myself writing (s)he or his/her.

While this construction has been used and continues being used in many (mostly formal) texts on- and offline, the new Code of Conduct considers this suboptimal:

5. "Gender-neutral"? Does that mean like "he/she"?

Not quite. While “he/she” and similar compound pronouns are better than a default masculine “he” alone, gender-neutral writing works to avoid gendered terms entirely when gender is unknown, either through rephrasing statements to avoid pronouns or through the usage of singular (or plural) “they”. For examples and other methods, see Kate Gregory’s answer to a related question - Define "gender-neutral language"? (CoC FAQ)

I'll admit singular "they" sounds less natural to me than "he/she", because my native language doesn't have the former construction and uses the latter. But it's getting better after four years of visiting Stack Exchange.

Alternatively, replace all instances of personal pronouns with 'author', '@username', 'OP' (when directed at the user who posted the question) etc.

  • 8
    I usually just say OP. Commented Nov 17, 2018 at 2:41
  • 2
    Singular "they" is very common in natural spoken English when someone talks about someone they don't know anything about (which is, of course, the norm around the many anonymous users of stack exchange sites). Every native English speaker* I know would 100% naturally say something like "Oh look, someone dropped their wallet. Let's see if they had anything with their phone number on it inside, so we can call them and they can come and collect it" (*except for the ones who would steal the wallet, of course...) Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 15:06

I really rarely have any reason to talk about the OP as a person. So a typical reference to the OP goes like I read the OP's question as ... It (i.e., the OP's question) is ... Keeping a focus on the question and the answer relieves us from talking about the person, speculating about motives, gender, religion, or other personal traits.


The UN has some guidelines for gender-inclusive language used for their staff.

They do say that plural pronouns are a bad thing for formal writing (though OK for informal writing, such as personal emails):

In informal writing, such as emails, plural pronouns may be used as a shortcut to ensure gender inclusiveness. Such strategies are not recommended in formal writing.

For more official sources of writers and language experts, the American Heritage Dictionary has a panel of experts who are polled on language changes. "singular they" was added as a usage (2b) referring to gender-neutral writing, but polling showed controversary whether it was correct use of language:

Resistance remains strongest when the sentence refers to a specific individual whose gender is unknown, rather than to a generic individual representative of anyone: in our 2015 survey, 58 percent of the Panel found We thank the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments unacceptable.

The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial; as of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender.

My opinion is that both "they" and "he" should be acceptable. If the majority here have to be nice enough to accept the LGBTQ+ definition of gender pronouns, then then LGBTQ+ group should also be nice enough to accept that many use 'generic he' in a gender-inclusive manner. Tweaking all posts and comments to use username or OP is not going to be practical, nobody realistically writes that way, so forcing a change in their manner of thinking is going to be problematic, and that's not even before we consider people for whom English is not their primary language.

I have referred to someone on this site as "he" without knowing anything about the author other than their username. I received a reply telling me that they were flagging my comment because I hadn't referred to them "correctly", which caused me great distress. I'd rather the site was primarily concerned with intellectual responses on a totally genderless basis only.

  • 1
    Are you aware of the new Code of Conduct, and the debate that has been taking place over it for the last couple of months?
    – user102937
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 16:42
  • The UN article you cited appears to be outdated. It was written at a time when we were only worrying about terms like "Mankind."
    – user102937
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 16:48
  • 3
    @RobertHarvey the uN article is still current, or they'd surely have pulled or updated it. That its right up there as teir guidelines means they must think its still relevant. I suppose also that their staff use those guidelines today.
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 16:55
  • Well, it doesn't appear to have much relevance to the new CoC. Pronouns like ze, zish and hir are not even mentioned. Mostly, it discusses variations on "he" and "she." Any article cited in connection with SE's new CoC would have to address non-binary genders.
    – user102937
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 16:56
  • 2
    @RobertHarvey maybe the UN doesn't think those pronouns are useful to writing, or maybe they have seen what happened over Monica and really don't want to get involved :-) Good to see you back though.
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 17:00
  • 3
    Yeah, I get it. Perhaps SE doesn't consider the UN a reasonable moral authority for this particular topic, or they haven't seen the UN's guidance.
    – user102937
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 17:01
  • 3
    @RobertHarvey I didn't know UN had any authority left, or any credibility for that matter. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected Saudi Arabia to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women for 2018–2022
    – dfhwze
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 17:13
  • @dfhwze: You can't have meaningful change without bringing everyone's voice to the table.
    – user102937
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 17:44
  • In SE rules it is acceptable to use "he" for "a specific individual whose gender is unknown", even when that individual is present. The explanation given is that it's been a common teaching, and is still common in usage, despite "becoming less accepted as time passes". Also, I presume, because a rule against it would add yet another obstacle for new users who aren't native speakers. However the question is really asking for advice on a point of language usage. AHD labels it a Usage Problem.
    – sourcejedi
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 19:40

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .