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Why Generic 'He' is Indispensable

Updated on March 13, 2020
Bushra Iqbal profile image

Thank you for stopping by! I teach drama, run a drama club, and write because I must.

Why Generic 'He' is Indispensable


'It's often important to use language which implicitly or explicitly includes both men and women,' states 'He or she' versus 'they', an article featured on, 'making no distinction between the genders. This can be tricky when it comes to pronouns.'

In the past, it explains, people used he, his, him, and himself in situations where they did not know the gender of a singular antecedent, an approach now seen as 'sexist and outdated'. However, it reassures us that there are 'other options which allow you to arrive at a "gender-neutral" solution', such as:

1.‘You can use the wording "he or she", "his or her", etc.’

To feminists, regardless of what the stated purpose of a piece of writing is, it should also engage in promoting social justice (as understood by feminists), and, regardless of context, human beings are always divided along gender lines, so that every instance of the generic pronoun can be read as though it were the masculine pronoun. Statements containing generic he consequently appear biased to them, and they demand that he or she, or some other so-called gender-neutral substitute, be used in lieu of so-called pseudo-generic he. In other words, they expect you to take their own erroneous reading of a statement, and run with it.

Take, for example, the following statement: 'Everyone has the right to practice his own religion.' Feminists would insist that its writer is presuming that only men, being men, have the right to practice their own religions. If they are right, then the writer of the statement in question must have been a lunatic: insofar as they all subscribe to the same set of beliefs, there is no difference between any two followers of the same religion. Within the state where it takes place, persecution of one individual on account of his beliefs is tantamount to persecution of every individual who holds the same beliefs.

If you rewrite the original text as 'Everyone has the right to practice his or her religion' so as to 'explicitly include women', you end up not with a statement that simultaneously retains the correct meaning of the original text and removes sexist bias from its feminist reading, but with a statement that correctly reads as a gender-neutral version of the feminist reading of the original text: men have their own religion or religions that they are free to practice, and women also have their own religion or religions that they too are free to practice.

Or perhaps the writer of the gender-neutral version finds it conceivable that men from different religions could join forces to keep their female coreligionists from practicing their respective religions, or be indifferent to their plight if the latter were harassed on account of their beliefs? Not, mind you, that one has ever heard of people being persecuted for their beliefs because of their biological sex, not even in basket-cases like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.

Using his or her instead of generic his cannot retain the correct meaning of the original text — that it is the fundamental right of every individual to practice his religion, no matter how absurd, illogical, or even blasphemous it may be in the eyes of those who do not accept it — for the simple reason that the equality of the sexes bears no relevance to it: the right to free exercise of religion is granted not on the grounds that all human beings are equal, but on the grounds that only God knows whether a man has mistakenly or deliberately rejected the truth. Therefore, as far as his religious convictions are concerned, man is answerable to God alone, and not to the state or anyone else.

If you are still not convinced that the phrase he or she is far from synonymous with generic he correctly read, consider this: Urdu has no gender-specific pronouns, and its words for male and female usually sound out of place when applied to human beings. To spell out that a statement was applicable to either sex, an Urdu writer would have to explain, at some length, that such was the case. Someone writing in English, though, could simply use a three-word phrase like he or she to convey the same amount of information.

For example, in the following excerpt from the concluding chapters of The Agony of Pakistan, Sir Muhammad Zafrullah Khan uses a phrase like he or she to spell out that certain Islamic injunctions apply to members of either sex in order to disabuse his reader of the commonly-held misconception that they do not: '[Every Muslim] is expected to acquaint himself or herself with the rudiments of the faith ....'

In fact, you can use a generic pronoun and a phrase like he or she to refer to a singular antecedent within the same sentence, placing each where it is most appropriate, as another example from The Agony of Pakistan shows: 'Every person would have his own yardstick for determining what he or she can spare.' There's precision for you. No wonder Khan was elected President of the UN General Assembly from 1962 to 1963, and President of the International Court of Justice, the Hague, from 1970 to 1973.

You will find examples of a phrase like he or she being used in its own right, and not as a substitute for the generic pronoun, in the works of other good prose stylists too. For example, in Chapter 13 of The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell uses both generic he and the phrase his or her to refer to the word parent: 'to say, the individual parent, even if he accepts these arguments .... The parent who genuinely desires the child's welfare more than his or her power over the child will not need textbooks on psycho-analysis ... but will be guided aright by impulse.'

Note that the differences and likenesses between the two sexes are relevant to the subject Russell is discussing, namely, parenting. Note also that neither The Agony of Pakistan nor The Conquest of Happiness pretends to be a detached recital of facts and figures: in the very first sentence of the foreword to The Agony of Pakistan, Khan states that 'the author has striven scrupulously to keep his own thinking in the background, except towards the end'; in the very first chapter of The Conquest of Happiness, Russell makes it clear that he proposes 'to suggest the changes by which his [the reader's] happiness ... may be achieved.'

In any case, since the male pronoun precedes its female counterpart in a phrase like he or she, using it as a replacement for generic he does not placate feminists. You are expected to reverse the order, as this sentence from the entry on drama in Neil and Sarah King's The Complete A-Z English Literature Handbook (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001) does: 'A reader of a play needs to be "theatre literate" in order to visualise it successfully in her or his head.' Privately, I wonder why the writers of a dictionary of literary terms would find it necessary to impress upon their reader that a head can also belong to a female.

A writer may also be expected to use both possible forms of a phrase like he or she alternately. There are no hard-and-fast rules that govern how he is to do this, and there are several possibilities. How is one supposed to know which of them will be acceptable to his reader, and which will put him off?

2.'You can make the relevant noun plural, rewording the sentence as necessary.'

This particular option sidesteps the issue under discussion: what to use instead of the generic pronoun when referring to a singular antecedent whose gender is unknown.

3.'You can use plural pronouns "they", "them", "their", etc., despite the fact that, technically, they are referring to a singular noun.'

Does 'singular' they mean anyone, as generic he does, or does it mean he or she? Since it is used solely to make it clear to even the stupidest of readers that one's statements apply to females just as they do to males when it is used in place of generic he, it would appear to have the same meaning as he or she.

Yet, unlike he or she, it is supposed to only imply the inclusion of females — a task that generic he, if read correctly, already carries out admirably enough. Small wonder usage of this imprecise word is still avoided in formal contexts.


In sum, all the options suggested by what is reputedly the world's leading authority on the English language to 'allow you to arrive at a "gender-neutral" solution' are foolhardy: not one of them can serve as a replacement for generic he.


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    • justmesuzanne profile image


      4 days ago from Texas

      We really need a gender neutral, singular pronoun in English.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile imageAUTHOR

      Aishatu Ali 

      13 days ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      @Mitara N: Thank you very much!

    • MitaraN profile image

      Mitara N 

      13 days ago from South Africa

      Hi Bushra

      Great analysis done, well written and a very interesting article

      Thanks for sharing

    • RoadMonkey profile image


      2 weeks ago

      Bushra Iqbal, yes "he" was intended to include all genders, however, its use often hides the fact that women have been involved. Take for instance, academic papers. The authors use their initials when publishing these papers. That hides the number of contributions from women. Religious freedom may also be different for men from women.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile imageAUTHOR

      Aishatu Ali 

      2 weeks ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      @Pamela: Thank you!

      @DreamerMeg: Perhaps you could but why would you? Religious freedom isn't based on gender equality. And, as you yourself say, generic "he" includes all possible genders.

    • DreamerMeg profile image


      2 weeks ago from Northern Ireland

      I understand that the term "he" when used in the Greek or Latin languages is meant to refer to humankind, which includes all possible genders.So you could use a phrase like "human beings have the right to practise their own religions", or "every human has the right to practice a religion of choice"

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      2 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      This is a very well-written article that makes me think about the way I use particular pronouns. I know English in one country may not be identical to how another country uses particular words.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile imageAUTHOR

      Aishatu Ali 

      2 weeks ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      @Peggy: Thanks!

      @Kyler: Thanks! That was a funny story, LOL!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Language, and the meaning of language, varies from country to country, and also through the ages. You have made some good points with your illustrations of the gender neutral use of the word "he."

    • Kyler J Falk profile image

      Kyler J Falk 

      2 weeks ago from Corona, CA

      This reminded me of a funny story about something I experienced while working, though it may be silly I think it somewhat applies here because I wish I had just used gender-neutral pronouns.

      I was working security overnight at a large printing plant and I had to check everyone in and out of the building. A new worker who went by a name similar to D'Shaundae, showed up late and needed to be buzzed in. D'Shaundae had a very feminine build and raspy feminine voice, but dressed and looked like a male. Their name didn't help in discerning their gender. When I went to radio to their supervisor that they had a new worker to come pick up I referred to them first with "his name" and "dude" but for some reason my brain got confused when their supervisor asked where they were and I said "she" was up with me at security. D'Shaundae didn't correct my mistake and I was too embarrassed to ask which was correct; to this day I wish I would've just used gender neutral pronouns in that situation.

      A great article, Bushra, and it makes very valid points to consider when choosing which pronouns are appropriate to use despite the expectations of others.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile imageAUTHOR

      Aishatu Ali 

      2 weeks ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      @Umesh: Thank you!

    • Bushra Iqbal profile imageAUTHOR

      Aishatu Ali 

      2 weeks ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      @Lora: Thank you very much.

    • bhattuc profile image

      Umesh Chandra Bhatt 

      2 weeks ago from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India

      Very exhaustive analysis made by the author. Nice reading. Thanks.

    • Lora Hollings profile image

      Lora Hollings 

      2 weeks ago

      This is a very interesting article that really makes you think about the precise meaning of language and how changing the wording in a phrase or sentence just by changing a pronoun can really make a difference semantically. I don't have a problem with a writer using he or him as a generic pronoun and have always interpreted it as applying to both genders. I think you've stated your case very well and cited some very good examples to support your thesis, Bushra. I enjoyed reading it.


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