Back in my day, I was taught to use masculine pronouns.

The user chooses a password, and then he types it in the text box.

I'm fine with that. but a male coworker insists on using he/she, which I find needlessly distracting and complicated.

I hate using they and their. I find that too convoluted, and not nearly clear enough when you want to talk about one person doing one thing.

I like "you" but you can't always get away with that. Sometimes you're telling someone about what his users can do.

Interspersing "he" for some things with "she" for others is also distracting, but maybe the closest thing to "fair" that I can come up with.

What is the current thought on this? What's the most acceptable way to go?

(Frankly, I wish I could get away with "it." As in "it puts the lotion on its skin." Creepy, right?)

  • 18
    I share your dislike of singular they, but it's not wrong. It's been attested in the literature for centuries.
    – TRiG
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 9:49
  • 12
    @TRiG There are reasons to dislike it other than believing that it is wrong. Being unambiguous is important, too. When I come across the word they in a sentence such as the example given, I have to take a short break to glance back at the subject to make sure I read and am understanding it correctly. It's not horribly inconvenient, but it does disrupt the flow. In the worst cases, it can be totally ambiguous whether you are talking about one person or multiple subjects.
    – Corey
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 16:49
  • 4
    Many of the people who write and most of the people who read the specs for products worked on by us have English as their second language, and frankly don't care about PC. We just put a standard message at the start of the document which says that gender specific language is used because our writers cant write and our readers dont care. Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 10:43
  • 1
    It's very confusing for me, because in my language (well, the same applies to almost all Indo-European languages) every noun has its gender, so user as the noun is masculine, for example, and using anything except 'he' would be grammatical error.
    – user4509
    Commented Jan 12, 2013 at 16:51
  • 5
    Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun (“his” versus “her” versus “their”)? -> "They" is very established, whether you like it or not. Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 15:20

17 Answers 17


A few additional options:

  • Introduce a named person (perhaps fictional), and use that person's name. "Terry wants to create an account. She chooses a password and types it into the text box. No, wait, Terry is a man. I think. Damn, that's a lousy example. Pat wants to create an account. Um, I mean Chris. No, wait. Maybe Dale. Er..."
  • Use the imperative mood, with an implied you (as I'm doing in most of these examples). "Choose a password and type it into the text box."
  • Drop the pronoun whenever you can: "The user chooses a password and types it into the text box." This can make the remaining pronouns less troublesome. In some cases you'll have to recast the sentence to make this work.
  • Use passive voice, and don't refer to the actor at all. Yeah, I know you've been warned against this. But sometimes it can be used with good effect, in a natural-sounding way. (Heh.)

[Edited to add:]

Here are some additional tips from Val Drummond's Elements of Nonsexist Usage. Chapter 4 is all about pronouns.

  • Make the subject plural. Then use plural pronouns.
  • Replace gender-specific possessive pronouns with "the." Instead of "When the user types his password..." try "When the user types the password."
  • Use the word "one." I personally hate this. It usually reads like a desperate attempt to claim objectivity, or add plausible deniability ("Oh... I meant people in general should pick up their socks, not you specifically, sweetie"), or some other such nonsense. Not that I have an attitude about this, mind one.
  • 45
    "The user puts the lotion in the basket or the user gets the firehose." Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 5:48
  • 2
    If you have several users interacting it is common to choose names starting with the first letters of the alphabet. For example Alice and Bob, which can be abbreviated as A and B. Names can also be chosen according to the role in the interaction, for example Eve, the evil interloper.
    – starblue
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 7:35
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    Alice, Bob, and Eve are archetypal characters. Even if your readers are not aware of the the characters, introduce them in a footnote or appendix - your readers will appreciate you when they come across the characters in other material. Commented Jun 7, 2011 at 16:24
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    All of these suggestions (use specific names, pluralize, use the passive or imperative voice, etc...) demand that you change the meaning of your sentence. The hallmark of good writing is clarity. Any "rule" that requires you to obfuscate is a bad rule. Traditionally, the English third-person singular indeterminate gender pronoun has shared the same form as the third-person masculine pronoun: he.
    – patrick
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 18:57
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    There are no requirements here, no demands. Each suggestion invites you to consider an alternative way to say what you want to say. If an alternative would obfuscate, or otherwise interfere with what you're trying to accomplish, drop it from consideration. I find that considering a variety of ways to cast a sentence often helps me to clarify what I'm trying to say. Commented Jun 14, 2011 at 5:03

They/their can be used in a singular context

The user chooses a password, and then they type the password in to the text box

  • 6
    They/their is used by some writers in a singular context, but it's grammatically incorrect, and I would be very irritated to see it in any documentation I was reading, proofing, approving, or learning from. English doesn't have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun, but "themself" is not the answer. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 11:53
  • 18
    according to the Oxford dictionary its perfectly fine, and was in use back in the 16th century oxforddictionaries.com/page/heshethey/he-or-she-versus-they also see, crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/sgtheirl.html Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 12:31
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    @Lauren Ipsum: What is your source for saying it's grammatically incorrect to use they/their in a singular context? Thanks!
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 20:16
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    +1 @Lauren Ipsum: If you're unable to cite a source, are you not simply describing how you use it? Besides in most complex languages a "prescriptive rule" has limited value beyond generic applications. Furthermore, prescriptive rule sets are only based on common practice at the time, and are never set in stone. English was spoken for hundreds of years before it was common place for people to read. That said, clearly there are rules in use, but I'd have to take Oxford's rule set over yours... :-) ...still, interesting to ponder a rule of grammar, that is unless they are given too much thought.
    – blunders
    Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 0:00
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    @Lauren. "just because people have been doing it wrong for four hundred years doesn't make it right". Well, yes, actually, it does. If you don't define the rules of English from the way it's used by native speakers, how do you define them?
    – TRiG
    Commented Aug 5, 2011 at 0:38

Very few use he/she. In academia, there is currently a movement toward using the feminine pronoun at all times. That said, it is far more common (and less remarkable) to alternate pronouns as you suggested. As long as you stick with the same pronoun per example you'll be technically correct, although it is increasingly un-PC to use only male pronouns. Until we get a gender neutral (and animate) pronoun, that's as well as I can do.

  • 7
    I suggest alternating gender per chapter (or section, or whatever divisions your document is broken into). Chapter 1 has all female pronouns, Chapter 2 has all male, and so on. Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 11:55
  • 6
    I propose "zhe" as the gender neutral animate pronoun! Ok... I literally just thought of it, looked it up and was very surprised to find that this exact spelling has been proposed before (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun#Modern_solutions).
    – JYelton
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 15:57
  • Your answer inspired me to ask this question — english.stackexchange.com/q/28508/9546 — since you mention the movement, can you offer an explanation for it? Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 10:16
  • The singular they is accepted by AP style, so it's a reasonable alternative at this point. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 16:53
  • 10 years later, and it seems that this trend hasn't held. Exclusive usage of either "he" or "she" appear to be extremely uncommon in academia.
    – forest
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 8:07

Funny, no one has mentioned the MS Manual of Style for Technical Publications ...

Avoid the generic masculine pronoun. Use the instead of his, or rewrite material in the second person (you) or in the plural. If necessary, use a plural pronoun such as they or their with an indefinite singular antecedent, such as everyone, or with multiple antecedents of different or unknown genders, such John and Chris. Use his or her for the singular possessive case if you can do so infrequently and if nothing else works. - MSTP v3, page 107

I can't say this has ever been a significant issue for me in twenty years of technical writing. You are rarely if ever writing about the user, but are generally writing to them, and thus the operative pronoun (often implied) is generally "you."

In some situations, you might end up writing to one user about another user—for example, when your audience consists of system administrators or developers, who will be concerned about users of their systems or applications. But even here, the need to use third-person singular pronouns comes up less frequently than you might think. For example:

User:  Class representing a user account on the system.

       name          The user's full name
       mail          The user's mail address
       password      The user's password
       groups        List of groups to which the user belongs
       permissions   List of permissions available to the user
       expiry        Date on which the user's account expired or will expire
       admins        List of users who may edit or delete the account

       register()    Registers a new user account in the system directory
       update()      Writes a modified user account in the system directory
       delete()      Permanently deletes a user account from the system directory

The only pronoun used in that snippet of API documentation, which is about a user class, is "who." It is not at all necessary to write it like this:

User:  Class representing a user account on the system.

       name          His or her full name
       mail          His or her mail address

... etc.

In fact, saying "the user" each time is arguably better because it allows the reader to skim for the information they're interested in without having to keep track of possible antecedents for pronouns. The phrase "the user" in a computer manual is like "said" in fiction: mostly invisible, and almost always far less intrusive than attempts to avoid it.

In my experience, the gender issue simply comes up infrequently enough that the well-worn workarounds suffice. I typically just use "he or she," or else recast the sentence to be plural and use "they," or rewrite the sentence in some other way that usually is even clearer.


For technical writing, there are really only three rules.

Rule 1) Write short sentences that are easily understood. Rule 2) Punctuate correctly and avoid semicolons; they make sentences longer, are almost always unnecessary and can be potentially confusing to the reader. Rule 3) There are no other rules.

That said...

The third-person singular pronouns in English take four classes of gender: masculine, feminine, neuter, and indeterminate. The indeterminate happens to share the same form as the masculine. This happens all the time in English, where a single form of a word performs more than one duty. Heck, the second-person (indeterminate gender) English pronoun shares the same form for singular and plural!

"He cut the wood." Is that past or present tense? You only know if you add context. Was the worker male or female? You only know if you add context.

"The wood was hard so he worked hard to cut it."

Here we know that cut is past-tense because the context is past-tense (worked). We also see the adjective "hard" and the adverb "hard" share the same form and yet convey distinctly different meanings. The adjective describes tensile strength and the adverb describes intensity and effort. If we had followed regular usage and had added -ly to the adjective, the meaning would have changed dramatically. Same forms, different meanings. Of course, we still don't know the gender of the worker because the pronoun "he" is indeterminate (rather than neuter) in the absence of context. If gender is important, then add that content into the sentence. Otherwise, leave it alone.

Write clearly. Everything else is just noise.

  • "He cut the wood." is past tense. "He cuts the wood" is present tense. "They cut the wood." is ambiguous. Also, most people will assume that the person in "He cut the wood." was male.
    – Artsoccer
    Commented Feb 9, 2019 at 3:25

The easiest rewrite is to change the sentence itself to use a plural noun. I find myself doing this a lot.

 The user chooses a password, and then he types it in the text box.


 Users choose a password, and then they type it in the text box. 

Reference: Handbook of Technical Writing. Brusaw, Alred, Oliu.

The phrase "he or she" is OK IMHO if used sparingly. While "they" as a singular pronoun may work, enough people dislike it that I wouldn't go that route.

  • 1
    I would prefer dropping the pronoun from the first example, as in The user chooses a password, then types it in the text box.
    – JYelton
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 15:59
  • I agree. But, that's what I had to work with in the original example :-). Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 21:28
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    But this suggests that all of the users collectively choose a single password and type it into the text box once. Commented Jun 4, 2011 at 9:10
  • 1
    "They type their respective passwords into the text box." Commented Jun 9, 2011 at 14:47

Just use singular "they". People who bleat on about it being somehow gramatically incorrect need to educate themselves, either by doing a modicum of research, or just looking up the word in a dictionay.

@spence one of the problems I've encountered in the UK is that many people have been mis-educated to be indoctrinated with this rubbish that

  • "they" is only plural
  • it's OK to use gender exclusive language

and it's hard to turn around 12 years of defective schooling.

I note the irony in Lauren Ipsum's comment above "just because people have been doing it wrong for four hundred years doesn't make it right" Sorry old bean, grammar and syntax of language evolve over time; since "they" has been used as a singular pronoun over hundreds of years, then it has become part of our language and, ipso facto, correct.

  • 1
    They is plural. "They were at fault" means something entirely different than "He was at fault." ("They was at fault," is idiomatic and bad grammar, but still plural.)
    – patrick
    Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 15:58
  • 5
    @patrick: Sure. Just like "you" is plural, and was misappropriated first as a formal singular, later as the standard singular. Singular "they" is entirely correct and acceptable, and has been for centuries, despite the tiresome protests of poorly-educated prescriptivists. Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 17:26

Gender-Neutral Pronouns.



See "Invented pronouns" & summary chart on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun

& defeat gender conventions working 9-5. :)

  • 1
    welcome. It would be helpful if you would flesh out your answer with citations from the article rather than simply providing a link.
    – justkt
    Commented Jun 3, 2011 at 15:23

I can only speak from my own experience in Australia but we have been taught to use "They" wherever applicable. It is the appropriate word in the English language to use instead of he/she. Indeed the use of "he" or "she" would be considered discriminatory in publications from the government and is very rarely seen now.

However it is definitely true that documents name the person and then use a gender pronoun specific to the named person: "Tony wants to sign up for a license. He goes to the front counter and fills out the XYZ form."

One of my teachers once said to me that every word in the English language is there for a reason, if it's the appropriate one to use then you should use it.


Don't use pronouns:

The user chooses a password, and then he types it in the text box.


User chooses password, types it [or "password"] in text box.

"They" is the next best thing in English.

Finally: given that this example actually has 2 steps, consider splitting text into smaller steps:

  • User chooses password.
  • User types password in text box.

This repetition (of words, not content!) avoids the need for grammatical reference.

Use some factual references to make it clear how many passwords (!) and which text box.


(I would much more prefer to post this as a comment, but reputation.)

(Frankly, I wish I could get away with "it." As in "it puts the lotion on its skin." Creepy, right?)

It seems that you actually have a chance to get away with it. I got to this question after asking my own about usage of "it" to describe "contributor", which is done by MPL (section 1.1 for definition, sections 2.1, 2.3, 2.5 for usage).

2.5. Representation

Each Contributor represents that the Contributor believes its Contributions are its original creation(s) or it has sufficient rights to grant the rights to its Contributions conveyed by this License.


In IT books, I frequently see he being used in one chapter and she in the next.


I suggest using singular "they".

If you don't like that, include in your preface "mention of one gender implies all other genders" (which covers non-binary gender), and alternate between using "he" and "she" (but for the same subject).


The whole thing is way too much trouble so I just gave up: I always use she/her. But I try also to find a way to get rid of extra pronouns: "The user chooses a password and then he types it in the text box." Which is more economical anyway.


I am facing somewhat similar problem (How I should handle gender-neutral pronoun in technical writing?) as stated in the title question, below are the links I have gathered which should help.



  • Thanks for your reply Manmohan however here at writers, we're not fans of link only answers as the links can stop working in future. We prefer a summary of what the link contains so people don't need to go searching out information elsewhere.
    – Michael B
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 5:48

I was taught to use a job title as a subject, then use singular "they" for every mention until the next one, ie:

The pharmacist puts the pills into the bottle, then they give the bottle to the customer. The customer then pays the pharmacist using their money.

You can get away with the order in sentence#2 because "pharmacist" is the object of "pays," as well as "money." It's also fairly easy to translate to other languages this way, ie in Spanish:

If the money were to belong to the customer:

Pagan al farmaceutico con su dinero.

If the money were to belong to the pharmacist:

Pagan al faracuetico con el dinero del farmaceutico

Does this really matter? I find using "he" or "she" to be faster reading than "they," as well as saving line and page space ass well as ink. "He or she," "he/she," or even worse, "s/he," are all clumsy to read, and using the job title every time is as well. Follow whatever conventions your manager gave you, and if there aren't any, then have a team meeting to decide on one convention to use.

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