From the FAQ regarding the new CoC

Q6: What should I do if I don't know someone's pronouns?

When in doubt, use gender-neutral language or refer to the user by name.

What is "gender-neutral language?"

In my American schooling we were taught that when gender is unknown, "he" or "they" were the correct terms to use. (Although it was possible to write "he/she" in shorter pieces)

I'm assuming with all of the fuss going on that that is no longer appropriate (or at least heavily debated).

I'm not going to argue correctness either way.

But SE, as the ones imposing this CoC, need to define what the gender-neutral term(s) is, or you're going to cause a lot of unnecessary confusion and lashing out.

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    We can argue about appropriateness, but using "he" doesn't make a lot of sense. "He" implies SOME knowledge about the gender of the unknown person. It's reasonably obvious that "he" is not gender-neutral. I don't think the CoC needs to define gender-neutral language, any more than it would have to prescribe a list of offensive terms. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:02
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    "Historically" being the operative word here. Just like there are words that were not offensive in the past, but are offensive today. (I'm not saying "he" is offensive). Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:06
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    @GregoryCurrie funny you say that, because the masculine form is also the neutral one in my language.
    – Braiam
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 2:03
  • @Braiam Yes, there are a few languages like this. To an extent, English used to be one of those. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 2:05
  • 1
    Several years ago, a Meta StackOverflow question asked Does the SO Community view itself as gender neutral. None of the answers posted at the time expressed confusion about the term gender neutral.
    – Raedwald
    Commented Oct 27, 2019 at 9:39
  • SE censorship will prevent you getting answers to this question. Anyway, personally, I try to live my life here by ignoring the CoC and using my own ethical judgement.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 11:38

3 Answers 3


There are as many ways to write gender-neutrally as there are stars in the sky. The vast majority of sentences on SE sites (even non technical sites like The Workplace or Interpersonal Skills) are already gender neutral. These first three sentences of this answer, for example, don't refer to any other person and so are naturally gender neutral.

But sometimes you find yourself referring to a poster or a person that a poster mentioned:

Did the architect tell you why he wants it that way?

A little rearranging makes the pronoun, and the assumption that architects are male, disappear:

Do you know why the architect wants it that way?

Other times, you're using pronouns because it would otherwise be too repetitive:

You should ask your boss for a meeting so you can ask him why he has changed the policy and how he expects you to deal with this contradiction.

The first "him" can just completely disappear … "ask why" instead of "ask him why." For the next two, you can switch to passive tense:

You should ask your boss for a meeting so you can ask why the policy changed and how you are expected to deal with this contradiction.

I do this all the time on The Workplace, when I realize I don't know the gender of the person's manager, for example.

Finally, sometimes you have no choice, and then "they" is a well accepted choice:

Oh no! Someone has left their phone here!

Wow, is there a number or something on the lock screen so we can call them?

No. We'll just have to keep it here at the counter.

Yeah. I hope they come back for it soon.

Nobody finds this exchange non grammatical, because the subject is an unknown person. Literally this has been correct since before Shakespeare. So "ask your boss if they can elaborate" is also a gender neutral way to advise a poster on the Workplace.

Drifting for a moment from being gender-neutral, some people do find it weirder to say, read, or hear:

Taylor told me they were really upset by the way you talked to them.

If you are happy to write that with "she" when it's Susan who's upset, or "he" when Mike is upset, but you feel a need to reword this one, then you're not accepting Taylor's gender. It would be great to be able to learn how to cope with that, but that has nothing to do with normally writing in a gender neutral way.

  • 69
    "Oh no! Someone has left a phone here!" "...on the lock screen so we can call the owner?" "...I hope the owner/someone comes back for it soon." I can do this all day; it's second nature for me, the result of formal training and lots of practice. (Also worth noting that spoken language is more casual, but what we do here on SE is write.) Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:22
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    Just for the record, as a native speaker, all your examples look like very natural English to me, not... laboured... as some would suggest. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:24
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    Well written and gives great examples of actionables! Should really be linked to in the CoC FAQ :)
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:24
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    Yup, your sentences are also correct. My point was that sentences using they for an unknown, unnamed, singular person are not perceived as ungrammatical even by people telling me earnestly that they is never used for a single person. To the extent that when I say them out loud in such a conversation, I have been asked "what has that got to do with anything?" There are many ways to be right. Sorry @Monica other comments appeared while I was typing. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:25
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    Yes, there are many ways to be right, and we should permit all of them (so long as people aren't weaponizing them to be disrespectful, which neither you nor I would do). Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:25
  • Just curious -- where do you stand on themselves/themself? Yes, I realize that a rewrite often removes the need for one of these -- but if one of these really is needed, which do you recommend? (I personally prefer themselves but I'm currently working on desensitizing myself to themselves since some people seem to really prefer to write that way.) Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 4:05
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    It is acceptable if Taylor has told you those are their pronouns. It is, however, not an example of gender neutral writing. I included it as an aside specifically to point out that writing gender neutrally (not assuming anything about the people you are referring to) is different from respecting someone's choice to be referred to as them. Calling a known person they when their pronouns are unknown is rarely the best choice. An unknown person (your boss when I don't work with you, whoever forgot that phone), sure. A known person? Use the requested pronouns or write without pronouns. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 13:49
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    This question and answer are about "how do I write in a gender neutral way?" Please take your "I don't like the new CoC" material to some other question and answer. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 22:16
  • This answer doesn't cover one point that came up often in answers and discussion on the previous FAQ, particularly in the top rated answer there: is "OP" acceptable g/n language? Eg I (and I believe a lot of other people) normally use "OP" to refer to the OP in the third person, from habit picked up on anonymous forums. Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 9:21
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    OP is not a substitute for a pronoun like "he" or "she" -- it's a substitute for a name. I could say "Mars asked …" or "OP asked" in places I can't say "he asked" or "she asked" because pronouns refer back to someone you have already mentioned. Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 12:39
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    I find it rather odd to cite Shakespeare as a reference for language. To my understanding he was rather creative and "non-conforming" with the english language. I have not studied the english language (or Shakespeare), but I am curious. Also I struggle to understand why anybody thought singular "they" is a good idea, because "you" is already ambigous and to my mind a rather ugly artifact of the langugage. Why add more confusion for the third person pronoun. Especially as there already is a gender neutral third person pronoun (it). I thank in advance for helpful answers (as it would be noise)
    – Kami Kaze
    Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 13:35
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    @KamiKaze that conversation doesn't belong here. Singular they for an unknown referent has been correct for over 500 years, see the wiki link in my answer. Singular they for a specific person is newer, and out of scope for this answer. Commented Oct 23, 2019 at 13:52
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    Pronouns can always lead to this. If I said "Brian said he was angry" without the sentences before you don't know if I am reporting Brian's anger or answering "what did Brian tell you about Bill's mood?" Nonetheless we get by using pronouns all the time. Commented Nov 3, 2019 at 21:11
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    Note that in standard English "he" has historically been gender neutral, and has remained in all dialects until very recent history when small parts of America turned away from the usage. "Man" and "mankind" are still used as gender neutral. I think this might be a good note to add to your mention of "they" because a lot of non-Americans still use "he" as gender neutral.
    – user630541
    Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 11:34
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    As a non-man, "he" and "mankind" never felt gender neutral to me. And being told I was wrong and they did include me did not make me feel included, it made me feel rejected, corrected, and excluded. There is no way I will change this answer to suggest that explicitly male words are gender neutral and include women, nonbinary people, and other non male people. If you believe this to be true, put it in your own answer others can vote up or down. And for the record I don't live in the USA and I found "he" to exclude me back in the 70s, not recently. Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 13:13

So, I was taught the same thing - "he/him/his" == English's gender-neutral pronouns.

And that's what I used for the past ... Let's say "several years". Until a little while ago, when it was pointed out to me that this might be a bit off-putting to folks who, in their daily life, tend to be referred to by other pronouns. Such as, "she/her/hers".

Apparently such folk make up something like half the population! Who knew...

Anyway, I've been trying to alter my writing style since then. It's not easy; I'm an old dog, and this is a new trick. But with patience, it is possible to use "they/them/theirs" in place of the aforementioned pronouns. There are a few other, more creative options too. It's even possible to avoid pronouns entirely in a great many cases - which can be useful in situations where ambiguity would creep in otherwise.

No one's expecting you to change overnight. But it is worth making an effort: there are an awful lot of folks out there who would feel left out otherwise, and what's the fun in that?

So give it your best shot - I think you might find, as I did, that a new challenge helps you break out of some tired patterns and makes writing a bit more fun again.

As always, YMMV. Good luck!

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    Doesn't answer the question, sorry. I even specifically mentioned "they,"
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:16
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    Pithy, witty and fun. The usual awesome shog answer. But I do hope you address OP's final concern there: that "English gender neutral pronoun" is kind of nebulous, especially for those without English as a first language (heck, even you were taught "he/him"). Will "they/them/theirs" as gender neutral be something documented in the CoC (or somewhere in the FAQ at least?).
    – scohe001
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:19
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    English is nebulous, @scohe001. I know what Mars is asking for, but... It's impossible. In 20 years, all of this will look incredibly, embarrassingly archaic - as will the new CoC, and the FAQ associated with it. I know this because the language has changed so much just in the last 20 years, and in the 20 before that... I cannot imagine it stopping. Attempting to define a fixed set of words for a purpose is just not something that English does - so you either roll with the punches, or fall.
    – Shog9
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:21
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    I missed the part about avoiding pronouns entirely. Mostly answers the question--it just didn't click with me that "gender-neutral language" is not just terms, but changing the way you structure sentences, etc
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:28
  • 4
    Oh yeah. It's mostly that, IMHO. Words aren't just their dictionary definitions; they're connotations, they're the shape they lend to the sentences they become a part of. You gotta figure out what they're gonna mean to the folks you're talking to, and... At least try to make 'em understandable. The minute you become a human regex, you stop being effective.
    – Shog9
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:31
  • Off topic comment: But at the same time, I roughly recall reading research about how sentence structures affect the way people think about problems (I think the research was in the context of different languages though). By extension, this forced change in framing may have large (and likely unconsidered or even studied) consequences for many people. Could be interesting research!
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 1:46
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    Ahh good point @shog. It's making more sense with the rest of this discussion about "gender-neutral language" being more than just the pronouns you stick in. Thanks.
    – scohe001
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 2:32
  • 2
    Is "they" considered gender-neutral by SE? It seems like, from reading the recent drama, that it is its own (class of) gender. If that is the case, this advice could be problematic.
    – user627045
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 3:21
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    @PaulPlummer I believe "they" is gender-neutral. The issue is if OP uses A term--then you're stuck following the term that OP used.
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 4:00
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    "such folk make up something like half the population" To be fair one should say here up to half the population, because it's not clear if really all that usually do not use he are offended by using he in gender neutral contexts. That may not be the case. Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 20:22
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    -1 This does not answer the question. It borders on sarcastically asserting that this issue is easy and the question therefore silly. If it's so easy, why is SE stripping diamonds from people who are having trouble with the issue?
    – Thomas
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 23:10
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    Took me like two years to get comfy with it, so if it's easy then I'm dumb, @thomas. Careful what you read in.
    – Shog9
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 23:13
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    @KateGregory Kinda nitpicking, because with your high rep and experience I think you might better know how to proceed: Yes, this question was "How can I write gender neutrality?", but it was also (mainly) a message to SE that their FAQ should include how to write gender-neutral. As it's currently written, it's just causing confusion by using buzz words
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 7:07
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    Hence why I suggested that your post answer to this question should be what's actually in that FAQ answer :)
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 7:08
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    @Trilarion I'm pretty satisfied with the answers. I still want SE to properly update the FAQ, but that's slightly separate issue
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 9:51

It may be different for different languages. There can't really be an authoritative answer because there is no authoritative entity defining what is right and wrong for a language like English. And it may change over time.

Basically, the idea is that the language should not rely on assumptions about the gender. The problems are in the details as far as I can see. Is mankind (giant leap for) still considered gender neutral? It once was.

Is he/she really outdated everywhere? Wikipedia still lists it under gender neutral language. What about he/she/they then?

I guess when in doubt it comes down to either avoid pronouns altogether or use they, especially when talking about the Stack Exchanges approved version of gender neutral language. The FAQ should simply say so.

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    "I guess when in doubt it comes down to either avoid pronouns altogether or use they." that would be a reasonable guess. However reasonable is not the word I would use to describe the recent events, and both of those approaches are forbidden.
    – Kayaman
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 14:12
  • 1
    @Kayaman your link goes to the FAQ question, did you mean to link something more specific? I've seen comments from CMs (example) saying that "they" is only a recommendation, and you can still guess/default to something else.
    – Em C
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 2:09
  • @EmC hard to find particular posts or comments, but at some point the singular they was considered to be offensive. Or it might've been offensive in case the person had specified the person's preferred pronouns. It's a bit hard to keep track of these great new rules, and especially how they will be enforced. Avoiding pronouns is forbidden or at least subject to punishment if they decide you're avoiding pronouns.
    – Kayaman
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 9:14
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    To be fair all the current answers to this question also advocate avoiding pronouns. If the new CoC is in disagreement with avoiding pronouns it's in disagreement even with the answer by Shog. Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 9:23
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    @Kayaman See Q12. If you avoid only certain pronouns, yes, that's disrespectful and rude; if you aren't using any pronouns normally that's fine also. I suggest reading through CM comments to understand the actual position instead of relying on other user's interpretations - this link is how I dug up that earlier comment.. or if that doesn't help you could always post a question under the FAQ post if it's not already in the ~100 answers there
    – Em C
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 17:35
  • @tchrist I recommended using they as 3rd person singular pronoun of undefined gender, not as 3rd person plural pronoun, which is uncritical in English. Not do much in other languages like Spanish or French. They would have even more problems but frequently solve them by using the male gender version if the gender is mixed. Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 5:43

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