(s)he vs they


My post on the use of third person pronouns and the problems of sexism in language has generated quite a few comments. In fact, although we can bemoan the lack of a neutral third person singular pronoun in English, at least we can get round it by using ‘they’ and making the sentence plural. The Romance languages have it even harder: the third person plurals are also gender-specific. How do French, Spanish, Italian, etc. feminists cope with that?

In that paragraph, I used the word “gender-specific”. I meant precisely that: that the Romance language pronouns show the grammatical gender of the nouns they refer to. They do not indicate the sex of the animate beings. Or do they? What does French do when confronted with the necessity for using a pronoun for the second reference to army recruits? The French for recruit is “la recrue”, despite the fact that until fairly recently, they will all have been male. Similarly “la sentinelle”. I have read quite extensively in French, but I don’t recall ever coming across a solution to this conundrum. Any evidence will be very welcome …


  1. Male or female, a recruit or a sentry is always feminine in French (just as, male or female, a person is always feminine). Try googling “les sentinelles militaires elles” and you’ll see lots of examples. Do the same with “les recrues militaires elles.”

    What did we ever do without Google?

    In my own experience, the gender often shifts as you go from the general to the specific: if you’re just discussing “une sentinelle,” you’ll use “elle” but if you know the particular sentry is “Soldat Pierre Tremblay,” you’ll start using “il” in reference to the individual rather than his post.

    Examples like this point out the difference between the concept of gender and that of sex. No French speaker would consider a male sentry a “woman” simply because the noun that describes his position is feminine any more than they would consider a table a woman because it is feminine.*

    An understandably hard concept for English speakers to grasp as they conflate (grammatical) gender and sex far too readily.

    * Similarly of course, no German speaker would consider a girl not to be female in sex because the noun is neuter.

  2. Sorry for the late reply, but I have just discovered this blog.

    In Spanish we can say “Vino, vio, venció” (… came, … saw, …overcome ), perfectly gender-less.

    But it is true that at least the first time we have to declare our subject. In informal communication, forms such as “[email protected] niñ@s estaban muy [email protected]” are being used quite often.

    And I agree with JJM, we make a clear distinction between gramatical gender of words and the sex of a person.
    “Persona” is a feminine word, as they are the predominantly male “Guardia Civil” and the “Armada”.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.