Pronouns Part II: Gender and Pronouns

What Should I know about Gendered Pronouns?

By now, you have a working knowledge of what pronouns are and how to use them. This section focuses on more nuanced uses of pronouns and their place in the contemporary world—an emerging field of interest as people work to develop language that best captures their individual identities.

Eliminating Gender Bias

It is important to remember that many thoughtful and powerful English-language works from the past took masculine words for granted. The words such as man, men, he, him, and his were supposedly meant to include both men and women. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s “All men are created equal” (1776) and Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls” (1776). The contemporary equivalent of those words might be “All people are created equal” and “These are the times that try our souls,” which are two of several possible fixes for such gender exclusivity. When you read historic texts, recognize that the rules were different then, and the writers are no more at fault than the culture in which they lived.* Contemporary writing, however, should reflect inclusivity, which in turn reflects the culture in which you live today.

*It is equally important to be accurate, however, in our understanding of historic texts and their authors. For example, Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in the Declaration of Independence well before women won the equal right to vote in 1920. However, Thomas Paine is regarded as an early advocate for women’s rights. Accepting historic use of masculine words as implicitly inclusive obscures the very different intentions behind these two usages of the word “men.”

As discussed in Pronouns Part II, English does not have an agreed-upon gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun to match the gender-neutral third-person plural pronouns (they, their, them). Writers and speakers use he (him, his) for men and she (her, hers) for women. In the sentence “Everybody has his own opinion,” the indefinite pronoun everybody needs a singular pronoun to refer to it. Although it is grammatically correct to say, “Everybody has his own opinion,” the sentence excludes women. But until recently, it was considered grammatically questionable to write, “Everybody has their own opinion,” although their is gender neutral. When editing, be alert to such constructions and consider using a variety of approaches to avoid unnecessarily gendered writing. Here are some ideas:

  • Make the sentence plural: “People have their own opinions.”
  • Include both pronouns (This solution excludes people who do not fall within a gender binary): “Everybody has their own opinion.”
  • Eliminate the pronoun: “Everybody has an opinion.”
  • Employ they, their, and them as singular pronouns. However, depending on the context, using a plural pronoun to refer to a single individual can be confusing to readers when its antecedent is unclear, so always check on that.
  • Alternate masculine and feminine pronouns throughout your sentences or paragraphs, using she in one paragraph and he in the next. Be careful, though; to avoid confusing readers, you might change them in each section or chapter.

Most writers have used all of these solutions at one time or another. As always, use the strategy that makes for the clearest, most graceful writing.

Noun and Pronoun Cases

One feature that is easier in English than in many other languages is noun cases. While other languages have changed for the objective case and changes based on gender, English nouns do not change form except for the formation of plurals and possessives.

Pronouns in English, on the other hand, have different forms for the subjective, possessive, and objective cases. The subjective case refers to words as they are used in the subject position, while the possessive and objective cases designate words that are used in the possessive and object positions, respectively.

Because these terms can be a bit confusing, watch the video below for more explanation:

Subject and object pronouns. by Khan Academy. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

Study the following table for an overview of the noun and pronoun cases.

Examples of nouns in different cases
Singular jar






Plural apples






Singular pronouns in different cases
First person  I  my


Second person  you  your


Third person  he

 she, her, hers



 her, hers





Plural pronouns in different cases
First person  we  our



Second person

you  your,


Third person they  their


Indefinite pronouns in different cases
 everybody  everybody’s everybody
 someone  someone’s someone
 anybody  anybody’s  anybody
Relative and interrogative pronouns in different cases







that that
which which
who whose whom
whoever whoever’s (slang) whomever

Correct Gender Pronouns

As it is unacceptable to refer generically to a doctor as “him,” a teacher as “her,” or a politician as “him,” it is also false to assume that all people identify as either a him or a her. Gender identification does not always fall under two opposing forms of masculine and feminine, also known as a gender binary.

The pronouns he and she are third-person personal pronouns traditionally specific to biological sex; however, English lacks a gender-neutral third person pronoun, and this is problematic for people who identify as neither a him nor a her. In response to this language void, a variety of new pronouns have been coined that do not bear a resemblance to the traditional pronouns of he/him or she/her (Third Person Pronoun; Shank).

The table below lists a range of gender inclusive pronouns that have come into usage. According to the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, “In English, the most commonly used singular gender neutral pronouns are ze (sometimes spelled zie) and hir” (Third Person Pronoun); however, the singular they is also coming into usage when referring to a person whose gender identification is nonbinary.

CNM offers the option for transgender and gender non-binary students to let instructors know of their gender pronouns and preferred name(s) to be used in the classroom. This service is detailed on the LGBTQ+  page on CNM’s website.

Here is a table of Gender Pronouns:

Gender Pronouns
Subject Pronoun Object Pronoun Possessive Pronoun Reflexive Pronoun
____ is an activist. I am proud of _____. That is _____ book. or


That book is _____.

That person likes _____.
She her her/hers herself
He him his himself
Ze hir hir/hirs hirself
Ze zir zir/zirs zirself
E or Ey em eir/eirs eirself or emself
Per per per/pers perself
Hu Hum hus/hus humself
They (are) them their/theirs themselves

Correct Gender Pronouns is adapted from two sources: Preferred Gender Pronoun Handout and Third Person Pronoun

Some of the pronouns in the table above cannot be located in a dictionary. Every year, hundreds of words are added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Take, for example, the terms whatevs (circa 1990) or noob (early 21st century). These innocuous words came into wide usage and were later added to the dictionary. Even though whatevs and noob are informal words, they have a dictionary definition. While the pronouns in the table above may not conform to Standard American English because they do not have a dictionary entry, that does not mean the words will never become mainstream. Language is constantly evolving, and when the usage of any of these pronouns grows, dictionary entries will follow.

Tips for Avoiding Pronoun Problems

Tip #1

If you have trouble choosing between “I” and “me” in compound subject-object situations, remove the other subject or object and try “I” or “me” alone.

Example 1

Which of these two choices are correct?

At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of Anna and I.


At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of Anna and me.

  • Test: At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of (I, me).
  • Result: Since the correct choice alone is “me,” the correct choice within the compound object is also “me”—At Bryce Canyon, Carol took thirty pictures of Anna and me.


Tip #2

If you are confused about whether to use who or whom in a dependent clause, try isolating the clause that includes who or whom. Then reword the clause as a sentence and substitute a personal pronoun (subjective case: he, she, they; objective case: him, her, them) for who or whom. If he, she, or they sounds right, use who. If him, her, or them sounds right, use whom.

This video explains in more detail:

Who versus whom. by Khan Academy. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.

And here is an example for you to read over as well:

  • Example: I don’t know (who, whom) to ask about where to stay at the Grand Tetons.
  • Test: Possible rewording—I don’t know if I should ask (he, she, they, him, her, them).
  • Result: Since him, her, or them are the choices that work, the correct choice in the first sentence is whom—I don’t know whom to ask about where to stay at the Grand Tetons.

Tip #3

If you are confused about whether to use who or whom at the beginning of a sentence, think of an answer for the sentence using a personal pronoun. Then mimic the case of the answer pronoun in the original sentence.

  • Example 1: (Who, Whom) is getting up at sunrise to watch the sun come up over these magnificent trees?
    • Test: They will get up.
    • Result: Since they is subjective case, you should use who, which is also subjective case.
  • Example 2: (Who, Whom) did you ask to watch the fire?
    • Test: I asked her to watch the fire.
    • Result: Since her is objective case, you should use whom, which is also objective case.

Tip #4

In casual usage, some words are sometimes left out, thus requiring a pronoun to do extra work. If you are confused about which pronoun case to use in these situations, think about how the sentence would be written if it were totally complete. Considering the whole sentence meaning should help clarify the pronoun choice.

  • Example 1: Harry likes camping more than (her, she).
    • Test: Harry likes camping more than she (likes camping).
    • Result: The pronoun she is the subject of the assumed verb likes. So subjective case is needed.
  • Example 2: Harry likes camping more than (her, she).
    • Test: Harry likes camping more than (he likes) her.
    • Result: The pronoun her is the object of the assumed verb likes. So objective case is needed.

Tip #5

If you are unsure whether to use we and us before a noun or noun phrase, say the sentence without the noun or noun phrase in place. Whichever pronoun works without the noun or noun phrase is also the correct pronoun to use with the noun.

  • Example 1: Even (us, we) people who like our creature comforts fall in love with nature when viewing the Grand Tetons.
    • Test: Even we fall in love with nature when viewing the Grand Tetons.
    • Result: Once people who like our creature comforts is dropped out, it becomes clear that the pronoun needs to be subjective case.
  • Example 2: Don’t wait for (us, we) creature-comfort people to come up with a plan.
  • Test: Don’t wait for us to come up with a plan.
  • Result: Once creature-comfort people is dropped, it becomes clear that the pronoun needs to be objective case.

Pronouns for Nonbinary and Transgender People

You cannot always know how individuals identify themselves, nor can you assume their gender is either male or female. The best approach with people you don’t know is simply to ask which pronouns they prefer and to respect their choice. Some people identify themselves with the pronouns they/them/theirs, and this preference is generally acceptable politically, socially, and grammatically. Other gender-neutral pronouns exist as well, such as ze/hir/hirs, but they are used less often. If you are unsure, an option is simply to use the person’s name.

If an individual has a specific identity and prefers a masculine, feminine, or gender-neutral pronoun, there are ways they can inform people of it. (Notice the use here of they as a singular pronoun.) For example, if one identifies as female, that person can include the pronouns she/her as part of their email signature: “Jane Doe (she/her).” Similarly, a person who identifies as nonbinary can include the preferred pronouns they/them/their in their signature, or they might include the request: “No pronouns, use name.”


You can also watch this short video to learn more about the history of Gender Pronouns:

Gender Pronouns, Get Them Right! by MTV UK. License: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube License.



Take a moment and write about how pronoun use impacts you. Also, write about how people understand each other through pronouns, while being mindful of the differences between people. Think carefully about perspectives on gender, and be sure to respect other points of view and interpretations of pronoun use. Finally, explain how pronoun use is an important component of identity.

As an additional exercise, review your portfolio and (re)consider your use of pronouns. Your development as a writer and enhanced understanding of pronouns will provide new insight into their use. Where might you have made other decisions about pronouns, and what impact might they have had? Consider including these insights in your reflective essay.


Avoid Discriminatory Language

Above all, your writing should not hurt people or exclude any group from humanity. As you edit, ensure that your language does not discriminate against categories of people based on gender, race, ethnicity, social class, or sexual orientation—or anything else.



Further Reading

The following texts provide additional information or examples regarding reflective writing in various disciplines and settings.

Bolton, Gillie, and Russell Delderfield. Reflective Practice: Writing and Professional Development. 5th ed., Sage Publications, 2018.

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. 1974.Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2013.

Stevens, Dannelle D., and Joanne E. Cooper. Journal Keeping: How to Use Reflective Writing for Effective Learning, Teaching, Professional Insight, and Positive Change. Stylus Publishing, 2009.

Tan, Amy. Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. Ecco, 2017.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Project Gutenberg,

Williams, Kate, Mary Woolliams, and Jane Spiro. Reflective Writing. 2nd ed., Red Globe Press, 2020.


Works Cited

Albritton, Laura. Review of A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, by Sandra Cisneros. Harvard Review Online, 15 Mar. 2016,

Cisneros, Sandra. A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Harbison, John L. “Thomas Paine: Eighteenth Century Feminist.” Social Studies, vol. 69, no. 3, May/Jun 1978, pp. 103-7,

Rodríguez Aranda, Pilar E. “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-Three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” The Americas Review, vol. 18, no. 1, Jan. 1990, pp. 63–80.

Trumbore, Dale. “Be a Real Person.” Cantate, vol. 31, no. 2, Winter 2019, p. 25, 2019/01/Cantate-winter-19-web.pdf.



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