Third-Person Pronouns

Page Summary

  • The pronoun they/their is an appropriate gender-neutral alternative to he/she and his/her.
  • Using the “he/she” style in text omits people who don’t identify with either pronoun and can be substituted by they, or by using a noun.
  • When writing text, consider whether pronouns are even required at all. Most text can be written without using pronouns.

The English language has three third-person singular pronouns referring to people:

  • She
  • He
  • They (singular)

*The third-person singular pronoun It should not be used to refer to a person.

The latter may feel incorrect to some people, who had been taught that “they” cannot be used to refer to a person. In modern English they is almost universally accepted to refer to groups or individuals depending on the context.

When you need to use pronouns but want to refer to readers of all genders you can use the pronoun “they” and the genitive pronoun “their”. These are widely accepted and understood as gender-neutral singular and plural alternatives for “he/his” and “she/her”. Do not use the the pronoun “it” to refer to any person.

Usage of they/their

  • A student who registers late, must submit their data again.
  • The applicant must pay the application fee when their application is due.
  • The president has the following responsibilities; they must …

In certain cases, the use of they/their may increase the text ambiguity:

  • After a student selects an advisor, they must notify the dean after 12 days. 

In this case, they may refer to the student or the advisor. To clarify this, replace the pronoun with the noun which it describes. 

  • After a student selects an advisor, the advisor must notify the dean after 12 days.

Usage of his/her, she/he

Most documents at EPFL already use the “his/her” or “she/he” pronoun construct in text:

  • Applicants must pay the application fee when his/her application is …
  • The mentor should be an EPFL professor; he/she cannot be the …

However, this style omits individuals who do not use the pronouns he or she. It is also arguably a bit more cumbersome to read. Using the pronoun they improves the flow of the text and it includes all individuals regardless of gender.

Are pronouns even required?

Alternatively, consider whether a pronoun is even required in your text:

  • At the end of every semester a student must pay all of his/her/their outstanding matriculation fees.
  • Students must pay all outstanding matriculation fees at the end of every semester.

Rephrasing without the use of pronouns often leads to succinct instructions:

  • She/He must register before the Camipro card can be activated.
  • Registration is required to activate the Camipro card.

Sometimes pronouns can equally be replaced by who:

  • If an employee has not validated his/her/their timesheet by the end of the month, they cannot …
  • Employees who have not validated timesheets by the end of the month cannot…