Skip to main content

Pronoun Problems: "He/She," "He or She," or Just Plain "He"?

Is there a special rule regarding which pronoun to use when talking about a non-specific gender ("he/she," "he or she," "he") or is it completely the writer's choice?

Q: Is there a special rule regarding which pronoun to use when talking about a non-specific gender ("he/she," "he or she," "he") or is it completely the writer’s choice? —Jarrett Z.

A: For years, the masculine pronouns (he, his, him) graced most literary work when referring to a non-specific gender. It was an unspoken rule that was sexist and one-sided, but it stood in place for a long time. Being the equal-opportunity pronoun nation that we are today, that rule has changed—or, more precisely, completely disappeared.

Both male and female pronouns are acceptable to use when the sex isn’t specified. Therefore it’s OK to write “he/she,” “he or she” or declare one gender to use throughout an article. Many writers will stick with their own biological genes—men tend to use the pronoun “he” while women generally use “she.” Both ways are perfectly fine. The preference lies in the hands of the writer.

Many magazines, including the one you’re reading, take a different approach. Writing “his or her” or “his/her” can start to look clunky, and No. 1 on the Writer’s Digest 10 Commandments list states: “Thou shalt avoid clunkiness at all costs.” Our rule is to alternate pronouns: If we say “he” in one paragraph referencing a non-specified gender, the next time an example comes up in the article we’ll use “she.” And so on. Switching back and forth is easy to do, gets rid of the clutter and keeps readers from calling you unwanted names.

    Shelley Burr: On Writing About Rage in Crime Fiction

    Shelley Burr: On Writing About Rage in Crime Fiction

    Author Shelley Burr discusses the less altruistic side of amateur sleuths in her debut crime novel, WAKE.

    Sew vs. So vs. Sow (Grammar Rules)

    Sew vs. So vs. Sow (Grammar Rules)

    Let's look at the differences between sew, so, and sow with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

    Using Beats To Improve Dialogue and Action in Scenes

    Using Beats To Improve Dialogue and Action in Scenes

    For many writers, dialogue is one of the most difficult things to get right. Here, author and educator Audrey Wick shares how to use beats to improve dialogue and action in scenes.

    Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: On Introducing Russian History to Fantasy Readers

    Olesya Salnikova Gilmore: On Introducing Russian History to Fantasy Readers

    Author Olesya Salnikova Gilmore discusses the changes her manuscript underwent throughout the writing process of her debut historical fantasy novel, The Witch and the Tsar.

    Freelance Food Writing: How to Break Into the Industry

    Freelance Food Writing: How to Break Into the Industry

    Food writer Deanna Martinez-Bey shares her advice on breaking into the freelance food-writing industry, including finding your niche, pitching ideas, and more.

    Plot Twist Story Prompts: Red Line Moment

    Plot Twist Story Prompts: Red Line Moment

    Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have somebody cross your character's red line.

    Hafizah Augustus Geter: On Confronting Complicated Questions When Writing Memoir

    Hafizah Augustus Geter: On Confronting Complicated Questions When Writing Memoir

    Award-winning writer Hafizah Augustus Geter discusses how her experience as a poet helped her take on her new memoir, The Black Period.

    6 Ways To Collaborate With Other Writers Ahead of Your Book Launch

    6 Ways To Collaborate With Other Writers Ahead of Your Book Launch

    Writer Aileen Weintraub shares how to find your writing community in the process of launching your book.

    Martha Anne Toll: On the Power of Memory

    Martha Anne Toll: On the Power of Memory

    Author Martha Anne Toll discusses the mythology that inspired her debut novel, Three Muses.