For the writing challenge, I'm currently writing from the point of view of a robot. Also another robot is frequently addressed. However I've hit a problem: Referring to the robots as “it” often gives confusing sentences.

It probably doesn't help that one of the robot acquired a human male name (which it read from a cryogenic chamber data and liked). Also for some reason I think of the other robot as female (I don't actually know why). But the robots don't have the concept of gender (they don't even really know what humans are), so using “he” and “she” wouldn't seem right. I can partially work around it by using the names or the phrase “the robot” more often, but that also goes so far.

Here's an example of what I mean (Tom and Mil are the robots):

Mil removed the connector from Toms arm and inserted it into one on the door. Tom now was again alone with its thoughts. Before meeting Mil, it hadn't cared about that, but now it felt like something was missing from it. That was illogical, Tom knew, as it was still a complete robot with nothing missing. And yet, something in its circuits told it that it was incomplete. Tom couldn't make sense of it.

Here's the same paragraph with male pronouns for Tom:

Mil removed the connector from Toms arm and inserted it into one on the door. Tom now was again alone with his thoughts. Before meeting Mil, he hadn't cared about that, but now he felt like something was missing from him. That was illogical, Tom knew, as he was still a complete robot with nothing missing. And yet, something in his circuits told him that he was incomplete. Tom couldn't make sense of it.

In that form, the paragraph reads much better. But it doesn't make sense because the robot simply does not know the concept of male and female.

Therefore my question: Are there other techniques I can employ to avoid the confusion and awkwardness of constantly using “it”?

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    Note that "he" is used both as a gendered and gender-neutral pronoun, and it's perfectly fine to use "he" to refer to persons of unknown or N/A gender. It's only recently that people started trying to push the gender-neutral "they", but you can also use that if you want - though it's still used by just a tiny vocal minority, and people might think you're part of that movement if you use it in your writing (whether that bothers/enamours you is up to you).
    – Luaan
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 12:50
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    “They” for third-person singular has been a part of the language for centuries. It’s the opponents that are a vocal minority of pedants. You can’t please everyone.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 14:19
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    Perhaps using names that don't imply a gender would help. For robots, numbers (like 7 of 9 on STNG, or just Seven) might help keep the mind centered about using 'it' versus he/she. Serial numbers, like 15 of model type 3 would be the full designation. Robots wouldn't seem to care about shortness of terminology since they aren't 'lazy' or impatient about speaking and hearing every syllable. Your readers might care so shortening the full designation to 15 would be helpful if the numbers started getting large.
    – CramerTV
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 16:57
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    @WGroleau Use of "they" for a specific person, rather than a generic antecedent that needs a singular form, has never been widespread. The majority of English speakers would find "Someone left their book here." idiomatic, but not "Alice left their book here." Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 18:57
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    @eyeballfrog what about "eyeballfrog left their book here." We can be sure who left the book without being sure of their gender. They could be unsure of their own gender. Maybe Alice Cooper left the book there, and it was a mistake to say "her." I'd think language purists would leave well enough alone here, before people start conjuring up more crazy abominations like "zir" or Stallman's "perse." If someone wants to be called "they," respect them and use "they." If someone calls you "they" and you don't like it, insist on "he" or whatever you like. If they respect you, they'll call you that. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 20:22

15 Answers 15


Either Tom and Mil are characters, or they are inanimate mechanical constructs.

Examining the latter case:

Machine B removed the connector from Machine A's port and inserted it into one on the door.

This looks fine. Notice "arm" was replaced with "port," to get rid of any hint of anthropomorphism (also, the original phrasing suggests that the door has arms).

Machine A now was again alone with its thoughts.

Something feels wrong here. Inanimate objects typically don't have thoughts.

Before meeting Machine B, it hadn't cared about that, but now it felt like something was missing from it.

Again, something is wrong. Inanimate objects don't have cares or feelings, and the thought of things "meeting" one another in this manner seems off.

That was illogical, Machine A knew, as it was still a complete robot with nothing missing. And yet, something in its circuits told it that it was incomplete. Machine A couldn't make sense of it.

Whether machines can know things or reason about them (in the same sense as sentient beings) seems like a topic for debate, but this sounds like the inner thoughts of a character, not some routine being dispassionately executed by a computer program.

You might conclude that Tom and Mil are better written as characters, and not simple mechanical constructs. Do you think of Tom as male? Call him he. Do you think of Mil as female? Call her she. Calling them "it" feels stilted to me; assigning them genders does not.

There's precedent for this in writing and in real life: read about Marvin the Paranoid Android, or strike up a conversation with a friend about Amazon's Alexa and see how long it takes them to refer to the device as "she."

Or, you might decide that it's more interesting to write about them like you'd write about any other inanimate object. But doing that convincingly seems like it would require extensive changes to the story.

Either way, in my opinion what you have now in the "it" example amounts to sitting on the fence, while the "he" example feels natural.

  • The robots are indeed characters (the robot Tom actually is my main character, after all). However they start out as inanimate objects (Tom starts as the robot CMR-0815a); a software update changes that. I have an in-story justification about why CMR-0815a renames itself/himself Tom, same for Mil. I wouldn't have an in-story justification for changing the pronomina.
    – celtschk
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 4:46
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    @celtschk re: "they start out as inanimate objects" -- I wondered about that. So starting off with "it" makes sense. IMO gaining sentience is enough of a justification for switching to a more humanizing pronoun, but maybe the transition is the difficult part? Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 5:11
  • In essence, yes, the problem is the switching. If I refer to the robot as “it” in one sentence and then as “he” in the next, it would be strange. Especially as the robot basically discovers its own new sentience by itself, which is a gradual process. So there's also no clear point to switch pronouns.
    – celtschk
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 5:30
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    Hmm, actually I just remembered an example of this. The switch just happens as soon as the robot is repaired. Remember that old game Chrono Trigger? Your party finds a deactivated robot, which becomes a party member. When you find it: Lucca: "It's in bad shape... ...but it appears to be a humanoid robot! Incredible! ... I think I can fix it." and later, after being fixed and destroyed again: Lucca: He's in bad shape... I'm not sure I can fix him. Ok, so it's just a video game, and the English version is translated from Japanese, but it worked well enough. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 5:34
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    @celtschk The robot gains sentience as an event in your story, and decides to call itself "Tom". Why can't the robot, in one more sentence, also consider and decide its gender? "I am Tom. I feel I am a Male." then henceforth you call Tom "he", "his", etc. Same for Mil.
    – Amadeus
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 21:17

While it's okay to gender your robots if you really feel the need, it's not necessary. The first version with "it" instead of "he" read just fine. It's a bit awkward writing it, as we're trained to use "he" or "she" when speaking of beings with volition, but reading it went smoothly. Because you make it obvious they're robots! If you didn't, it would be strange.

Animals also sometimes get "it" for a pronoun, generally in situations where the gender is unknown (though not always). In this case it's done intentionally to "dehumanize" them. But it doesn't have to be that way, especially in this modern age of non-binary genders.

  • 3
    I rather liked the line in The Murderbot Diaries where Murderbot answers this with "I'm a SecuriBot, not a SexBot" - really, a robot only needs a gender to the extent that its intended function requires it to have one.
    – Robyn
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 4:00
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    Robots don't need a gender, but historically third-person pronouns for sentient beings do need a gender. English may be moving toward calling people by genderless pronouns, but "it" is not one of them. Calling a character "it" in one breath and then describing "its" feelings in the next feels both humanizing and dehumanizing at the same time. Unless that's the desired effect, it seems a lot more straightforward for a character named Tom to be a "he." Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 4:12
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    "English may be moving toward calling people by genderless pronouns" - correction: a vocal minority is moving towards it. Not everyone is doing so, and using binary gender is still grammatically correct.
    – vsz
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 5:33
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    HA! ran out time on the previous comment! @vsz: three problems with your statement: 1) Minority: are you sure? Do you in fact know what percentage of the population? I doubt anyone does. 2) If you are certain it is a minority (I concede you may be certain), so what? Minority does not mean 'wrong.' A 'vocal minority' wanted to end slavery in the US. A silent minority helped the persecuted leave the Third Reich. 3) Not the right venue for a debate in comparative moralism. (Ey said while fully aware ey was continuing the debate. xD ) As Thing-um points out language is fluid and ever changing.
    – D. Geren
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 14:49
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    @D.Geren a couple problems with your statement: 1) He can be certain of it as more than 90% of the population "identifies" as "cisgender". 2.a) vsz never addressed whether or not it was morally right, just that it's a minority. 2.b) Really? Slavery and the Holocaust? Are those really comparable to not calling you by the pronoun you choose?
    – Luis Rico
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 7:23

It might seem stilted to try, but English has had a gender neutral pronoun for awhile: one. If the story is limited omniscience using Tom's inner thoughts/feelings, then using phrasing like "this one" and "that one" might work to break the monotony and confusion of it. Phrase some of the narration as actual thoughts.

Tom found itself alone with its computations again. Before meeting that one, Mil, Tom hadn't noticed such things, but now it felt like something was missing from it. Illogical, Tom thought, this one remains intact; no components missing. Yet, something in this one's circuits tell this one... no tells me that this one is – I am incomplete... without that one. Tom failed to find an algorithm to explain his new state.

Each small correction to Tom's thoughts and speech show the progression from object to sentient being. Eventually, Tom may even start using gender based pronouns, but for only those robots he discovers to also have an emerging sentience. Maybe Tom starts applying genders as he researches what humans are and adopts more from the frozen Tom than just his name.

Also, keep in mind that dialog among multiple female characters or multiple male characters can lead to the same kinds of pronoun confusion 'it' seems to lead to. He said, he said, he thought, he waved. So, I would make sure there is something else besides pronoun that gives away who is saying and doing. Those little hints fall under characterization and can be traits, mannerisms, speech patterns, or habits.

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    To my knowledge, "one" doesn't really function as a replacement for "he" or "she"; it's either abstract (as in "one does not simply walk into Mordor" -> "a person does not...") or a formal first-person ("one is not amused" or "we are not amused" meaning "I am not amused").
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 15:47
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    @gidds Rarity does not equal wrong and a literary norm is to use stilted or overly formal language to represent robot-speech/thought patterns. Examples: Data can't use contractions, Robby is overly formal in warning Will Robinson of impending danger, HAL is sorry but he can't do that, Dave. Also, how one chooses to edit my 5 min paragraph may remove any difficulties. It is a foreign mind and how the author introduces speech and cultural patterns can add clarity. Difficulty in understand a foreign thought process is not unusual in scifi.
    – D. Geren
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 20:08
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    @D.Geren It's a pronoun, sure, but not all pronouns are interchangeable. In the sentence "John threw Mary the ball, and she threw it back", I don't think you can substitute "one" for "she" in the second clause. Wiktionary lists it as an "impersonal" or "indefinite personal", rather than "third-person", pronoun. Using it as a third-person pronoun would be as odd to my ear as making up a new word. (Which might be a valid stylistic choice, but isn't what this answer says.)
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 8:44
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    @D.Geren The Wikipedia page someone else linked to has this description, which matches my experience: Another gender-neutral pronoun that can be used to refer to people is the impersonal pronoun "one". This can sometimes be used to avoid gender-specification issues; however, it cannot normally substitute for a personal pronoun directly, and a sentence containing "he" or "she" would need to be rephrased, probably with a change of meaning, to enable "one" to be used instead.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 10:56
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    @IMSoP. I disagree. "That one," and "this one" are proper English, fit the question, diversify the language, and fade with progression of characterization. Just saying "one" alone is not my suggestion. In my example, I never use "one" in lieu of "he" or "she." Not sure I understand your dislike of it quite so much, but what really matters is: "Does it work for the scenario as presented?" I say yes, you say no. You say stop; I say go, go, go.
    – D. Geren
    Commented Aug 8, 2019 at 22:25

'They' is a valid alternative, as are zir and eir(and mx, if I remember correctly), all of which are gender-neutral pronouns. If you only have two or three main robot characters and want to refer to them all with gender-neutral pronouns you could just use a different set for each character, though you may have to be careful to establish whose pronouns belong to who so it doesn't get confusing for readers.

It's also possible to have a scene or paragraph where a robot considers their options, and the concept of 'gender', whatever that is, and decides that they will use a particular set of pronouns for whatever reason - they like a human who uses that set of pronouns, it seems to convey more benefits than another, it is easier to say. Or they genuinely don't care and that one's as good as any and someone referred to them by those pronouns and whatever, they can call them whatever they want as long as they don't call them a hunk of junk.

There's also the judicious and possible over-use of names, but that can get tedious.

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    Heh, I remember these from some old MUDs, but haven't seen them anywhere else. Aren't they/them the generally accepted gender-agnostic forms? "Tell whoever left last that they forgot to lock the door" ... that sounds like it's basically always been correct, no? Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 4:31
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    'zir', 'eir' are not really common English pronouns; some readers will be confused by them, many more won't know their case forms, and it might communicate that the robot is of non-binary gender, which could well be a connotation the author does not want to suggest. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 7:13
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    If the robots are sentient but not divided into male and female, they literally are non-binary gender.
    – mattdm
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 13:06
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    And as to confusing readers: there's a long tradition in both sci fi and fantasy of using language in a non-typical way in order to establish the setting. That might be exactly right here.
    – mattdm
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 13:06
  • 1
    @mattdm I'll resist the urge to make a "binary" joke. But they would be agender, not non-binary gender.
    – forest
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 3:45

Once you're talking about sentient robots, you're solidly into the realms of science fiction (or "speculative fiction", if you feel that's a less loaded term), and the pronouns you choose are part of your world-building. So to make the decision, you need to ask yourself some questions about the background of your setting, such as:

  • Do they think of themselves as equivalent to humans, or mere tools, or even superior?
  • Do humans agree?
  • Does your narrator agree?
  • Do you want to make your reader see them as "people", or as machines, or as something unfamiliar and "alien"?
  • Are robots visibly different, or might they be mistaken for humans?

The answers may be different for different parts of the story, because they are from different points of view, or due to the progression of the plot.

You then have a number of choices:

  • Use "he" and "she" for the most familiar, human-seeming prose.
  • Use "it" to highlight them as artificial.
  • Use "they" as an easily-understood but gender-neutral form, less familiar to some readers, but not truly "alien", and more "human" than "it".
  • Use one of the many attempts over the years at coining a new pronoun ("zhe", "co", "hesh", etc), to convey a more forcefully post-gender environment.
  • Use pronouns of your own invention, for a more deliberate distancing from our current society.

The pronouns might apply to all your characters, or robots might use one set and humans another. Again, this will give a flavour of how integrated the two groups are.

You don't have to tell the reader any of this reasoning, of course; if it's consistent with the rest of the style and content, it will feel natural.

  • To your fourth point: I want the reader to see them as machines that turn into people. In the very beginning, we have non-sentient robots (like CMR-0815a). There “it” is the only sensible choice, and at that point it just sounds right. But then they turn into persons (as sign for this, CMR-0815a decides to rename itself/himself Tom; that part has an in-story justification, as the robot reads the name in a dataset and decides it likes it more than its original designation). However I don't see a reasonable way to switch the pronouns. Note that the robots have never interacted with humans.
    – celtschk
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 17:11
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    @celtschk maybe you're overthinking that transition. Imagine a child discovering a robot: "Huh, what's this thing? It's got a weird blinking light and it's making a strange hum. Hey, what's this button for?" <click> Robot: "BLOOP! I AM A ROBOT!" Child: "Ooh, a robot! Aww, he's cute. Look how he waves his arms about when he talks! I wonder if he knows how to play tag? Come on, Robot, I'll teach you to play!" ... the child represents your reader. The moment she sees the robot as a humanoid, she begins thinking of it in a humanizing way. Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 17:44
  • (+1 to this answer, I like how it pretty much sums up all the other answers here.) Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 17:46
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    @celtschk If they haven't interacted with humans, there's another thing that comes into play: language conventions. Your story is in English, but do the robots speak English? If they do, they'll naturally start using English pronouns, and might feel they need to pick "he" or "she" when they start thinking of themselves as people. If they don't, you are translating into English for your readers; so your pronoun choice might be more about their expectations.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 9:12

The excerpt you provided seems a little too omniscient to me. It feels too human, reducing the immersion and preventing me from feeling like I'm truly peering into the mind of a machine. On the other hand, full first person could be tricky, as Tom's computer "thoughts" might be difficult to understand:

"1001 1101 0100 1011 1010 0111 1100 0110 1011 0111 0100 0100 1011 1010 1100 0110 1011 1001 1101 0100 0111 1100 0110 1011 0111 0100 0110 1011 1001"

Obviously I'm joking, but first person still feels off to me since a machine would not think in human language (even a fully sentient AI, presumably). (Side note: it could be really fun to include some of Tom's actual thoughts before he begins to gain sentience, but convert them in hex code (much shorter than binary), ie "Hello, my name is Tom" => "48 65 6c 6c 6f 2c 20 6d 79 20 6e 61 6d 65 20 69 73 20 54 6f 6d" (https://www.browserling.com/tools/hex-to-text). Of course, you wouldn't say anything too important to the story (most readers would think "oh, he thought computer stuff, that's neat", but it could be a nice Easter egg for the committed reader that actually translates it back to text.)

Anyway, third person limited seems like the most appropriate perspective. I think this is what you are going for, but I would limit it a bit more and try to think how a computer might think. You should feel like you are actually getting a glimpse into his mind. He wouldn't feel, he would run diagnostics and see error codes. Tom would not think of himself as 'it' or 'he' or anything else. More likely he would think of himself as a collection of parts, components, processes and functions, over which he is omniscient. He has no concept of pronouns and I think any use of them (at least until he has become more human-like) takes away from the immersion (like the narrator of a story referring to them self). Rewriting it without pronouns is kind of a fun challenge and definitely helps it feel more machine like. Extra technical jargon adds to the flavor. (Also note: Tom would not be aware of anything not connected to him, unless of course he has a camera or something.)

Mil removed the connector from Toms arm, presumably inserting it into another device. Tom's processes continued execution, but with higher than average latency, as if lonely somehow. Before networking with Mil everything operated as designed, optimized and efficient, but now something was missing. Tom ran a quick diagnostics check and, finding everything in working order, knew this was illogical. And yet, function after function returned error code 11425: "missing component". Tom couldn't make sense of it.

EDIT: To be clear, avoiding pronouns entirely for the whole story would be impractical, if at all possible (but totally epic if you could actually pull it off!). My point here is that the protagonist will likely have very limited understanding of self and identity, especially in the early story. Instead of "what is an alternative pronoun I can use here?" ask yourself "is there a way I can write this to not need a pronoun at all?"

  • Welcome to Writing.SE, WillRoss! Take a look at our tour and help center pages while you're here. :)That's an interesting frame challenge you're offering here. Not sure it's really possible to write a longer piece of fiction without using pronouns, but in a short story at least that should be possible. Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 21:03
  • @Galastel Thanks! Glad to be here! You bring up an excellent point. I added to my answer for better clarity.
    – WillRoss1
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 21:56
  • "K§Æ·DºÆ¹Ô|ktk"? Well that doesn't make any sense.
    – PoorYorick
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:14
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    @PoorYorick 01010111 01100101 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110000 01101100 01100001 01111001 01100101 01100100 00101100 00100000 01110011 01101001 01110010 00100001 00100000 01011000 01000100
    – WillRoss1
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 16:49

One possible avenue is make the algorithms of the robot decide the proper designation of the other robots/devices/users they interact with.

Applications, processes or databases often shortcut certain routines, or other applications, or other devices they can communicate with, and give them a label. This label might immediately be the name you need but most of the time users do that for the application. However, some algorithms are so smart they shortcut much used combination of routines for optimization. These get stored on a certain location on a harddisk. These locations are often marked with a certain number of bytes (groups of 1's and 0's). These bytes can be translated by an ASCII table into a random string of text.

And here you go. Your robot decided on a name for the things/people he communicates with. Male/female/anything in between (if that is what you want to focus on in your story), make your robot decide by algorithming away and "coincidentally" figure out the gender.

After doing that you can use which ever pronoun you want. You can even argue that this attributes to character building. Lots of options to explore here.

  • It's spelled "algorithms". Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 15:25
  • @Acccumulation Fair point. Just edit it next time :) Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 7:35

I had a similar problem with a story I was writing. Since the story was set in the future, and since language evolves, in the end I decided to invent my own pronouns: 'xe' (pronounced 'zee', instead of 'he' or 'she' for gender neutral robots. The 'X', as opposed to 'Z', because it felt more futuristic! Similarly 'xis', for 'his' or 'her', etc. At the same time though I tried to minimise the use of these words, so the reader wouldn't have to keep stumbling over them. I did want to avoid gender-specific terms, and all of the potential stereotyping that comes with that, as well as remind the reader that the characters existed in a different, future time.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE baykah, glad you found us. Please check out our tour and help center. While I'm a fan of people self-identifying as the gender that fits them, I've never liked the pronoun choices. But yours are nice.
    – Cyn
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 18:56

There are a whole load of Gender Neutral pronouns available and a number of different approaches using conventional pronouns in different ways.

Wikipedia provides a good summary.

I like Xe, Xem and Xyr. And Becky Chambers' Long Way to Small Angry Planet uses these and has a nice introduction to them when introducing a character that considers themselves to be a plural individual.


One possible solution is to refer to them with gendered pronouns, but with gender neutral ones (such as 'it' or 'they') during dialogue. This would work if your narrator is meant to not be a robot. A human narrator would (potentially) use gendered pronouns, simply because its how humans talk. However in the dialogue that robots are using they'd use 'it' because they're robots and don't have or understand gender.

  • Well, the narrative is third person limited, with the point of view strictly at the robot Tom. Up to now, the dialogues are not the problem (when they talk to each other, “I” and “you” are the obvious choices, and up to now, the situation that they speak about each other with a third character has not occurred). It's the narrative itself where the problem occurs.
    – celtschk
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 4:53

"Machines" that "communicate" with each other have "addresses". For example, the machine that runs this website has the address writing.stackexchange.com. Other machines, like your computer, address that machine by that "name". And they don't switch to pronouns during their exchange, but always use that "name" when they "speak of" that machine.

Robots, being machines not people, wouldn't use pronouns.

A robot would think of, refer to, and address another robot by its unique identificator. The unique identificator would be a string of bits (0 or 1) representable as a string of numbers, letters, and other characters.

A robot's narration would read like this:

GET ZTt5O55RsdK8RQAx Consent to Approach.
ZTt5O55RsdK8RQAx 403 Forbidden.
Get ZTt5O55RsdK8RQAx Plead: Consent to Approach. Argument: ZTt5O55RsdK8RQAx Battery Status 4%. Offer: Recharge.
ZTt5O55RsdK8RQAx 100 Continue.
MOVE (-4.67 3,01).

  • In technical writing, I admit, we sound like this. We try to avoid unclear pronouns, (and despite Plain Language guidelines, our specific department is to minimize using 'you" to mean the reader/audience/user). Also, we're advised to keep using the same term, like always "low-vision," not "vision impaired" or whatever for variety. ALWAYS same terminology. frustrating! Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:00
  • I don't really agree that you can have a "realistic" inner monologue for a sentient robot, because no such robot exists; if it did, it would almost certainly be completely unlike the simple networking protocols you're using as examples. It could certainly be a stylistic choice to represent robot thoughts as some kind of protocol, but it's not inherently more realistic than having them learn English, or think in pictures, or anything else.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:16
  • @IMSoP I agree. But if you have robots that are intelligent and have consciousness, then the question about pronouns becomes void. Because then those robots will be persons and speak about each other with whichever pronouns will then have become common for un-gendered persons (we're on the way there, using "they" and other made up non-binary pronouns). I take the fact that this question is being asked as implying that the robots in question aren't yet persons. As a consequence, they will speak in some way similar to my example. I think ;-)
    – user40570
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:34
  • @B.L.E. It seems you've interpreted the question very differently from the other answers on this page, then; most are talking about exactly the situation that you say "becomes void". Like I say, it's an interesting extra option, but I think as an answer this could be improved by providing more context to the situation where this option would be applicable, and where it would not.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:38

Just saw this and wanted to add my two cents.

Read Isaac Asimov's Robot series. He uses both masculine, feminine and neutral pronouns throughout the books depending on different circumstances. Elijah Bailey, one of Asimov's protagonists, refers to most robots as "it", rather than "he". However, he uses he/him pronouns for Daneel, who is a robot. The reason the pronouns are different is because of Elijah's attitude towards robots. At first, Bailey distrusts robots and thinks of them solely as machines or objects, hence the impersonal "it" pronouns. However, he gradually becomes friends with Daneel. Since Daneel is programmed to be a masculine robot, Bailey uses he/him pronouns for Daneel.

On the other end of the spectrum, Asimov wrote a short story about robot cars. Cars, obviously, have no gender, and so would be referred to as "it". However, the narrator sees these robo-cars as akin to living beings, and treats them as such. He also (semi-arbitrarily) decides which cars are male and which are female, and refers to them with appropriate pronouns.

Based on what you have said about these robots, pronouns would depend on how the robots think about themselves, how the narrative treats them, and how other characters treat your robots. Do human characters call Tom he or it? What about Mil? How do other robots refer to themselves and one another? Even if robots don't have a concept of gender, have they been programmed to use specific pronouns for each other? Did your humans want the robots to feel more like machines, or are they more personal? And finally, how does the narrative treat the robots? Is it talking about the robots from an outside perspective, as machines and machines only? Is the story about robots "finding humanity", and should the narrative reflect that through pronouns? If it is, the pronouns might change from it to he/him or she/her as the robots become more "human". And so on. Sorry if that this is really long, just wanted to say something.


I think your should use "it" as long as you want your audience to think of your robots as not having human-like characteristics. However, at some point if they are characters in your story, your job is to build connections and bonds between your audience and your characters. Therefore, at the point where you want the audience to view the robots as more humna-like and hence to start connecting (even if it is part-way through the story), you should switch to "he" and/or "she". In fact, make that transition a very clear transition.


Building from @Jontia's,

Personally, while I'm comfortable with she/her (and I'm also not a robot), I always like the X or Z options, and I had hoped they would catch on with people who wanted an alternative. -- my nonbinary friends aren't fans, alas.

But Zi/Zin may work well for a robot -- more personal than "it," but distinct from he/she.

Robot Q3E sighed. Ze wasn't a happy robot because zar owner had been disappointed in zin due to zar increasing independence.

He/him/his in this became ze/zin/zar.

(I didn't see a possessive, so "zar" felt right to me. Others use the objective pronoun also as the possive, just like "She took her historic punch card. Robots then avoided her." -- once as the possessive pronoun, once as the objective (object of a sentence).)

See more potential ones here: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:List_of_protologisms/third_person_singular_gender_neutral_pronouns

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    I had to correct your example because you were using "zin" wrong. Personally I feel that's a good indication that ze/zin/zar might not work as well as you would like it to. I do think this kind of story would be perfect for exploring nonbinary pronouns - in fact I would much prefer it if that's what the story was about - but these specific pronouns are simply cumbersome. (In my imaginary story, the robot could play around with them for a while, but in the end may choose to use something that helps with communication instead of making it more difficult.)
    – PoorYorick
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:28
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    @PoorYorick Non-gendered pronouns have a long history of struggle against exactly that problem, but I don't think ze/zin/zar are any more difficult than any other option someone might choose. My personal preference is singular they, which feels more familiar, but others find putting a familiar word in a new context more distracting than learning a totally new word.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:42

@CortAmmon hit the nail on the head and your answer partly confirms this. This is a story that is being told from a robot's perspective. To whom is the Robot telling the story too? English speaking humans, and thus the robot would construct the story into a language that humans would understand and but the robot would encounter logical inconsistencies with their internal thought process as you point out that the narrator does not comprehend the nature of biological gender and grammatical gender, but English is a language that does have gendered language and infrequently use gendered for nouns that do not have a gender. As a general rule in English Language, the pronoun "It" is read as a dehumanizing proverb when applied to something that is humanized. Even in the generic, "It" is avoided, with either a gender neutral "he", a gender binary "he or she" or "s/he" or even a collective singular they if the generic person is also of a unknown quality. With animals, the generic will be an it. And with animals and humans, when the generic becomes a specific indibidual the generic being will be ascribed proper gendered pronouns. If I was to refer to a generic individual dog, it is a dog. If I were to tell you about a MY dog, She is a dog (if we want to get real technical, she is a canine and a bitch, but not a dog. Dog originally meant an exclusively male canine in the English language but is the excepted term for either gender in a modern setting would be "Dog". Insert joke about "All Men are Dogs" here.).

There are also cases where an inanimate object may be ascribed a gender when it is anthropomorphized or given human characteristics OR in the case of a human showing affection for the object. More often then not in the later case, it is the feminine . One would never refer to the U.S.S. Enterprise by any pronoun other than "She" or you will be punched by both Kirk and Picard (I never felt Archer was an effective fighter to punch someone over the slight, but sure, why not... in theory). And the brooding superhero of the night will tell anyone that he fights the city's inordinate crime problem because "she needs me". Unless the inanimate object is given a voice and speaks with characters, it will almost always be likened to a lady with a mind of her own. However, if the object has male voice and personality, then he may be appropriate. While my car doesn't talk to me and is lovingly called a she, KITT from Night Rider talks to Hasslehauf and is very much a He.

So let's bring this home. Your narrator is from a group of robots who have not encountered the concept of gender, either in the biological sense or grammatical sense, yet are relating their experience in a language that uses both concepts of gender in illogical ways. You should put yourself in the robot's eyes and consider what it would do. Would it assign gender because to the robot, Thomas is a creature with specific personhood and thus, would be rude in English language to call Thomas an "It"? Or would the narrator call Thomas an "it" because Thomas meets the standard definition of a genderless item and thus logically would be an it, even though most of the Narrator's intended audience would cringe (an emotional response to an emotional taboo). Or, would the robot, in confusion of the pronoun troubles it faces, do away with any use of pronouns that where the rules of fuzzy as it introduces and illogical break.

In actual code, pronouns do not exist but there is the concept of objects and pointers. An object is a single collection of like data. An unique object of "bicycle" will have data in common with all bicycles (color, size of wheels, width of handle bars, ect) but those data may not be identical. A pointer is a term used to refer to only one specific instanse of an object in memory at any time. A pointer of bike_1 can be used to a specific bicycle with specific details in memory and will continue to do so until a bike_1 is redefined to mean a different instance of bicycle. So the concept of nouns (specific objects) and pronouns (pointers) is not unfamiliar to a robot. It can make the translation work.

And your assessment of German is wrong. German does not tie individual biological gender to a grammatical gender. For example, the German word for "girl" is gender neutral, but it is not unheard of to use feminine words to describe a specific girl. If I say the phrase "The girl, she is pretty" in German (Das Mädchen (The Girl), sie (she) ist (is) schön (pretty)) you can see I am using the Neutral gendered article "Das" but the feminine third person pronoun "sie" because I am refering to a specific person and not a generic girl. The German word for "Der Robot" is in the generic a robot, but if I was refering to Optimus Prime's um... "girlfriend" for want of a better word, Elita-1 (also a transformer and traditionally uses feminine pronouns) the correct way for saying of Elita-1 "She is the Robot" would be in German "Sie ist der Robot", not "Er (he) is der Robot." Elita-1 is a person using the pronouns she, not he. But she is a robot, which is a grammatical male gender article Der. There is also a recent trend among german speakers to change gramatical genders of words when speaking of an individual who is not of the generic words gender so "Sie ist die Robot" may be used since the robot is identified as a female gramatically already by "she" refering to a specific robot that is a feminine being.

And by the way "Die Bart, Die" is not German for "The Bart, The" as Bart is a male so it would be "Der Bart, Der"...

The best way to handle this is how does the narrating robot want to come off to the humans (as well as you the writer). If the narrator wants humans to think of robots as human like, the narrator might make a change to engender the characters as humans speaking English would be uncomfortable referring to things with personhood with the pronoun "it". If the robot is supposed to come off as logical and cold or alien to humans, the robot will refer to robots with correct grammatical gender "it" as there is nothing wrong with calling things with personhood as "it" when those things with personhood are without capability of gender. It is logical. The final example bot encapsulates the alien nature of robot thinking but the human nature of language confusion and lack or clarity on the rules of grammer. By refusing to ever refer to things with personhood by any pronouns, the robot narrator avoids the question all together, showing humility in that the narrator doesn't have a clear answer to the translation problem and doesn't think in English, but Binary and Computer. But it's also alien to the reader as a native English speaker would use pronouns in this situation. This method shows the narrator as both capable of human qualities (speaking a new language poorly is a human thing and translations often cause unintended meaning to be spoken) and preserves that while human like, they are not fully humans but something that thinks differently. After all, while you correctly discovered that German Language does give all nouns a gender with little rhyme or reason, you incorrectly believed that a word implied gender for all individuals of described by the noun (German grammatically is very similar to English, so order of words is important while Gender can be flexible. In Romance Languages like Spanish, French or Latin, order of the word in a sentence is flexible while the gendered case suffix of the words is very important to understanding who did what and what is being described).

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