I am new in this site and I hope to convey my question in a correct manner.

Any employee is also entitled to receive a reference letter. This document must contain an assessment on the performance of the employee in their post(s).

My question is, should I write "their" or "his/her".

As far as I understand, "their" is used to prevent gender-based discrimination.

In advance, I would like to thank you for your assistance.


5 Answers 5


All depends on the employee and the people who would be presented with this reference.

As of today, using "they" is considered "progressive", while using "he/she" is considered "conservative".

If there is any clear indication which pronoun employee would prefer, go with it. However, it is not so often that this preference is known.

Second, if your organization has any guidelines or standard practices for using pronouns, follow them. Note that this is a quickly changing subject, so if your organization exclusively used "he/she" five years ago, it may be different by now.

And last, use your own judgement. Who would be the likely recipient of this reference? Any chance they would like it one way or the other?

  • 1
    "If your organization has any guidelines or standard practices for using pronouns, follow them" is particularly good advice. It's great to check to see if the organization already has a policy about this.
    – Sciborg
    Oct 9, 2020 at 22:45
  • Don't agree with all details in this answer. As a self-proclaimed leftwinger I don't consider myself a conservative for sticking with "he/she" where applicable. And as I state my in own answer, singular they is also simply an unknown phenomenon for a lot of people. However the idea to cater the pronoun to the likely preference of the recipient is a good idea. I think this preference of the recipient is the most important because the reference letter is essentialy written for him/her/they😃. So this recipient-preference even trumps the guidelines/standard practices of your organization I think. Oct 10, 2020 at 0:52

Generally speaking, "their" is viewed as a more modern gender-neutral pronoun and a more elegant replacement for "his/her," so I would recommend going with "their." It also is inclusive of people who identify outside of the gender binary. However, both are correct, and either one would probably be fine, so no need to overthink it.


In certain circles, using "they/their" to refer to a singular person of unspecified gender, might already be commonplace. However I can assure you this new language construct is far from universally know, even for native English speakers.

So for a lot of people using "they/their" to refer to a single person just looks plain weird. I think a reference letter which looks weird to the reader is of limited use for a person. Therefore if the employee in question is just a regular, old-fashioned male or female I would just stick with "he/his" or "she/her". Only if the employee in question has a non-standard (not male or female) gender I would consider "they/their".

UPDATE 10/10/2020

Based on the comments and some of the other answers I am going to slightly change my answer. I now think that the choose of the pronoun in a reference letter should depend on the (likely) target audience of that letter. So if for instance the reference letter is going to be used to secure a position at a woke US-university, by all means use "they/their" as pronouns. However if for instance the reference letter is going to be shown to an older small-business owner or be used to secure a position in a company full of Trump-loving rednecks stick with "he/his" or "she/her".

  • 1
    It is standard now to use "they" instead of "his/her" and is even part of the APA 7th Edition standard: apastyle.apa.org/blog/singular-they. It's also extremely belittling to refer to people who don't use "he" or "she" as "exotic" and others as "regular." I'd suggest revising your answer to specify potential confusion because of locality or lack of familiarity with English because you have not provided evidence of actual appropriate usage of these pronouns based on standards of writing.
    – friendly
    Oct 9, 2020 at 19:20
  • 2
    The APA style guide is as far as I know not the definitive authority on the English language. It might prove "singular they" is common place under psychologists. However I know first hand that a lot native English speakers are not familiar with it. Further, as more than 99 percent of all people still identify as either male or female, I think there is nothing wrong with describing other genders as "exotic". Oct 9, 2020 at 19:41
  • 1
    It's not a definitive authority on the English language, but it is an authority about writing standards. If it helps, as of the most recent style specifications, MLA style also endorses a singular they. They made this move as a reflection of what Merriam-Webster, the dictionary, says. I'd say those three together are great indicators of what someone ought to write for a letter of recommendation. I also think "exotic" has connotations that aren't ideal when talking about trans and nonbinary people and ought to be reconsidered.
    – friendly
    Oct 9, 2020 at 20:02
  • 3
    Singular they is not some newfangled thing. The OED traces it back at least as far as 1375 public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they Its deprecation was a result of the 18th century attempt at imposing Latin grammatical rules on English which is also why split infinitives and dangling prepositions are frowned upon, but other than a misguided early modernist attempt at imposing order, there's no real reason for any of those prohibitions to be in place. Oct 9, 2020 at 20:28
  • 2
    @thieupepijn I'm unclear as to why the accepted modern usage of a word would make somebody "think less" of a writer, or why you feel the need to attack people as "exotic," but OP is writing a policy letter. They asked a simple question about what pronouns are common to use. The simple, factually supported answer is that either of their suggested options is fine and that "their" is more accepted today. There was no need to make your views on gender part of your answer or ignore the valid evidence commenters are (politely) offering to challenge you.
    – Sciborg
    Oct 9, 2020 at 21:41

Use what feels right for the character.

I am old school SWE (Standard Written English) and was taught to respect number and case, so consider they/them plural pronouns.

What matters is what is right for the work. Let’s assume for a second that your character is female and she just wants to hide it for reasons of her own. Perhaps she needs a job that is for men only (no, I’m not missing the point) so chooses to hide gender.

How would she think of herself? What is her internal dialogue? Does she think of herself as a themselves? If so, run with it. Be true to the character and it will work. Be false to the character and it will ring false and fall flat.

My current work uses the F word a lot, as a verb, adjective, exclamation, gerund and I don’t swear. My characters do swear, as it suits their world and their situation. I am being true to them.


You should use "their" but never with the wording you Posted.

Try "All employees are also entitled to receive reference letters. Such documents must contain assessments of the performance of the employees in their posts."

It is among those who don't care about the language, or at best consider preventing the possibility of gender-based discrimination more important than learning to use the language properly that "Their" is used as you suggest.

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