BookEnds Literary Agency The Superpower of a Critique Group
BookEnds Literary Agency How to Develop Your Author Brand
BookEnds Literary Agency The Cost of Being an Agent
BookEnds Literary Agency What is Upmarket Fiction?

He v. She

Some of you have noticed and have pointed out that in the blog I regularly use “she” when talking generally about readers, editors, clients, and pretty much anyone. I find it interesting that I’ve been criticized for this or questioned on it. I use “she” because “he/she” is awkward, and I was taught as a writer and an editor that readers prefer you choose a pronoun and stick to it. I’m a woman, and while I represent both men and women, I feel that it makes it more interesting to use “she.” This was actually a conscious decision when I started writing the blog. I wanted to make sure when talking generally and using pronouns that I would always use feminine pronouns. What I find most interesting is that this even has to be a discussion and that I am even questioned on it. Would I be questioned if I had used “he”? Would anyone have even noticed? Would someone have asked me if I had any female clients? Would someone have criticized me for clearly only representing men because I used “he”?


Category: Blog


  1. Jessica, it’s your blog so they’re your rules. I for one don’t mind either way. Mix ’em up in the same parpgraph if you want, just because…

  2. I love it and approve. Remember when all doctors were hes and all nurse were shes? Lawyers were hes and teachers were shes? Little words have big connotations. Carry on.

  3. Good grief. I think there are some folks out there with to much time on their hands and with some serious issues. I hadn’t noticed which gender of pronouns you’ve used (but would have noticed if you’d been inconsistent in the same post — though it wouldn’t have mattered if you did). I agree with Charlie — it’s your blog.

    What would make me sad is if you got frustrated with all the grumps out there and stopped blogging all together. THAT would be a major loss.

    * Word verification — damme — I agree no matter how it’s spelled. LOL

  4. I never noticed–now I think it’s funny that I didn’t.

    That drives me nuts about the English language (my family endures occasional rants on this): we HAVE a gender neutral pronoun but nobody will use it except the Queen of England, so now it looks pretentious. What a loss to the language; it could drive one quite mad to think about it.

  5. I hadn’t noticed, but now that you mention it your policy is excellent.

    I would go with ‘she’ since the word already includes ‘he’. How much more inclusive can you get?

  6. Craziness! What makes me shake my head the most is that people would criticize such a tiny issue. Especially if they read your blog enough to notice that, they should also realize how you strive to inform and help writers. Big picture people they are not.

  7. I make it a habit of using the female pronouns when talking about industry folks, albeit for a largely different reason. Mine is statistical. The overwhelming majority of agents, and it seems to be editors as well, are female.

    I typically try to use the second person when speaking about writers, but if the scenario calls for third, I opt for female there as well.

    I’ve yet to receive any complaints about it.

  8. How odd. I have been lurking for a few months now, and haven’t noticed the pronoun choice. It’s getting more common for people to switch back and forth, and I think that your solution is as good a one as I’ve heard.

  9. Well, I can understand someone making comment on your use of the feminine pronoun when speaking generally. English, both written and spoken, has forever used the masculine form for such purpose, so whenever someone uses the feminine form consistently it’s clear that someone intends making some sort of political and/or cultural and/or social statement, and such statements so made are always hugely annoying. Ergo, the comment.


  10. Uptight English teacher and grammar geek weighing in here: this argument extends to possessives as well. Because speakers and writers don’t want to choose “his” over “her,” (and “his or her” grows tiresome when used more than once) many opt for “their,” even to indicate the singular.

    It’s a lazy and imprecise construction that makes me want to impale myself on my red pen. . .

  11. If I remember correctly, my freshman (high school) english teacher explained that it was grammatically correct to use “he” anytime you would refer to both sexes. Also, lots of feminists would be making the “statement” that ACD was referring to and I think it does get tiresome but so does inflicting the word “always” in a negetive comment. Even if I thought for a moment that it was your intention, it’s your right. Maybe we should mind our manners, and the golden rule, and shut our porky mouths.

  12. Must say, I never noticed. /smack to those that feel the need to comment about it. I like using ‘they’ and ‘their’ a lot, even when talking about a singular subject. It’s amusing more for the fact that it weirds people out.

  13. LOL, when I first began teaching piano, I used to take turns. So I’d write, “Each student needs to bring her books to his lesson.”

    Totally ridiculous, LOL, but I rather liked it. I knew nothing about writing at the time, and now I can’t do it that way. But I rather liked my solution.

    “One” just doesn’t work. We really need a neuter sort of pronoun besides “it.”

  14. I think you should use “it”.

    “It really wrote a great book. I truly enjoyed reading it’s book, and selling it’s book was a breeze because it was so hugely talented it’s book just oozed saleability.”

    Problem solved!

    My best,
    Bryan Russell

  15. Never noticed. He or she, it doesn’t matter.

    I’m sure you would have probably gotten the same reaction from “he” as well.

    Honestly it doesn’t matter. I don’t know why people get bothered by such things 😛

  16. I always seem to notice stuff like that. I can’t help it but it doesn’t bother me. It’s more like a “hmm” moment.

    I was taught the same in high school by my English teacher.

    “You pick a pronoun and stick to it. Society has always taught us to use “he” but in my opinion it’s time we stop acting like there is only one gender out there,” she said to me.

    So she was notorious for using “she” in her teachings when referring to the reader or what not.

    I personally use both depending on my mood. 🙂

  17. I get it too in my blog. I’m a male and use she most of the time. I think it’s still new for many readers, but they’re getting used to it.

  18. Go for it! Keep running your blog as you see fit. It’s a sign of our PC times that people want to quible about such things. My WIP uses racial slurs common in the time period of its setting. I catch a ration for that, but I’m writing to show the times, not to please someone who shouldn’t be in the artistic world.

  19. Ooh, Wes — that struck a nerve. If one more person castigates me for using “Indians” instead of a more socially sensitive phrase like “native Americans,” “indigenous peoples” or “first nations,” I swear I’m going to detonate a nuclear device.

    On his/her/its desk.

    Jessica, why don’t you make up a neuter pronoun? Maybe it’ll catch on and we can quit worrying about yet another silly thing that bothers too many people for very little reason. 🙂

  20. That’s just bizarre. Personally, I mix it up. So long as we’re not using “they” as a single person, sex-neutral replacement, I think we’re good to go.

    I might just start using my Captcha word: mitymang

  21. Your use of the feminine pronoun didn’t surprise me. I suspected it was to add informality and closeness to your posts. But I’m not sure I’d have been so unaffected if you’d used he instead of she.

    Honestly, I might have wondered about a hidden purpose, perhaps to attract more male clients. But then, that’s how my mind works. I know all behavior is motivated, which frequently leads me to ask, “What is the motivation?”

    However, I do believe the influx of prescription commercials featuring the female pronoun ‘I asked my doctor, and she told me. . .’ is advertisers way of reaching and pleasing a target market more apt to pay attention to medical issues–i.e. females.

    Confucius says, when anger rises, think of the consequences.

  22. I applaud you for using she.

    I used to write business reports and used he/she or interchanged them, I agree our language needs a gender neutral pronoun, it would make it so much easier to write.

    I love this post today!

  23. In the past, when “he” was the standard, it bugged me when someone used “she” because it seemed so intentional. It WAS a statement, and I don’t want to be bothered by statements about sexism when I’m reading about cats or cycling what-have-you. Now, it’s so common I barely notice it.

    However, I think there’s an easy way to solve the confusion. The pronoun used should be determined by the speaker. If you’re male, you should use “he.” If you’re female, use “she.”

    And if one doesn’t want others to know one’s sex… 🙂

  24. In the Internet crevices I frequent, there’s a lot of discussion about how male-oriented the general media is. Men are the default. Men are the heroes and the interesting characters. Anything else is an inversion of the norm. So when bloggers complain about hypothetical use of “she” … Well, it’s telling.

    Good on you for making your choice and sticking to it, Jessica. The English language has its gender-related flaws, and yours is just one way to deal with them.

  25. I also tend to use “she” in these instances. Biologically speaking, it makes sense to make the default gender female. (Human fetuses are female without the influence of the sex-determining region of the Y chromosome.) Women also make up the majority of the U.S. population (51.1% in 2002, according to Health and Human Services). Or am I being too logical here? 😉

  26. Maybe it’s my age but to me he is like said and she is like exclaimed. The first I don’t notice but the second causes me a slight pause.

    I’m probably too old to change but I did see one version I did like – s/h/it for a combination female, male, genderless pronoun.

  27. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed, or if I did, thought you were talking about a specific person who happened to be female. In English, unfortunately, “he” is seen as neutral and “she” as different. We really need a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun…”they” is common in informal usage but technically incorrect, given it’s a plural pronoun. Good on you for picking one and sticking with it, though.

  28. Dear disorderly,
    OMG, I feel your pain. My WIP is set in New Mexico in the 1820s, and people want me to use native American. Jeez! Did anyone in that time period know that term? As long as the modern tribes use Indian to describe themselves, their publications, websites, and products, I’m OK with it.

  29. As a male, I not only respect your decision, but find it refreshing. Personally, the male dominance attitude in all things is getting pretty old in my book.

    As the father of one grown son, three grown daughters and a daugher still at home, I’ve always inculcated in my daughters that women rule. ‘Nuf said.

  30. Ah yes, the eternal struggle about the universal man versus the universal woman. You can’t win, can you? Seems like there’s always someone who tut-tut’s.

  31. Jessica, I’m glad you brought this up and I’m glad you write as you do. Twenty, thirty years ago, as we first began to struggle with this issue, I assumed — boy, am I naive! — that by now we’d have figured out a new, gender neutral pronoun. Language evolves, after all. But, alas, I am discouraged to see more and more writing devolved to exclusive use of male pronouns and the use of “man” to denote all humans. Language shapes us, individually and as a people, a culture. I believe we need to be proactive in nudging it to be just and inclusive. So, bravo for you! Jane

  32. My mom used to edit an academic journal and got roundly criticized by the authors of a study on men when she insisted that their article title state that it was… a study on men. This was in the mid-’90s, people. Evidently women were women but men were still just people.

  33. @ Rosemary re: the use of their as a neuter third person pronoun, as someone who loves grammar but loves more the -evolution- of grammar and how people will make a language work for them, not work for the language, I have to say I politely disagree with your statement that the use of their is laziness. It is ingenuity.

    Using she or he is equally inaccurate, because one might be referring to a male or a female. But to say ‘he or she’ constantly is stupid. It is contorted and makes for bad writing. Their is a perfectly proper alternative in my opinion, and I hope to see it’s use as a neuter third person pronoun grow until maybe fifty years from now grammarians get angry when it is -not- being used in that context.

  34. That is odd Jessica, I assumed that you used “she” because you were a woman and thought nothing of it. I figured, why would a woman use “he” when well, you’re a woman? It’s not that big of a deal. People need to letsome things go sometimes.

  35. I think people would have noticed (though perhaps not commented) if you’d used exclusively masculine pronouns. After all, people did eventually notice the discriminatory effect that had when it was the norm. The one people wouldn’t notice, these days, I think, is if you used plural pronouns instead of singular masculine or feminine pronouns, like ‘they.’ As in: I heard from a client today and they were doing fine. (shiver) Doesn’t matter how common this is, it gets under my skin every time. The problem is we have never decided to come up with a gender neutral pronoun set that doesn’t objectify and demean (like ‘it’) and we’re not comfortable with using masculine pronouns exclusively anymore (for good reason). I find that most things I write are long enough that there are at least two opportunities to use pronouns for gender-nonspecific unknowns, so I just alternate. (shrug)

  36. Enusan:

    I’m not sure I’d call using ‘their’ as a gender neutral is lazy exactly, though it makes me want to impale myself too. This practice wasn’t born out of laziness. It came from exactly what we’re talking about here. It became socially unacceptable to use ‘he,’ people were and maybe still are reluctant to just switch and use ‘she,’ and ‘he or she’ sounds horrible and ‘s/he’ can’t be used in anything even approaching formality. So what’s left?

    In my opinion, using plurals doesn’t work. You end up with ridiculous constructions like ‘Whatever idiot wrote this doesn’t know what they’re doing at all.’

    Of the three verbs in that sentence that have to agree with the subject (idiot: wrote, does, are) two are singular and one is plural. That, in my opinion, is unacceptable. I don’t see this being something grammarians demand in fifty years, or a hundred, or a thousand. There has to be a better way. And if there isn’t, we need to create one. Like we did with titles. The honorific ‘ms.’ didn’t exist until Sheila Michaels created it out of whole cloth in 1961 and Gloria Steinem made it into a magazine.

    If you’re interested in the evolution of grammar, this is a much better example than the simple unexamined use of a plural where a singular is needed. That causes far more trouble than it’s worth. But your point is a good one: This is our language. We can do what we want. I’d just counsel doing something doesn’t sound stupid.

  37. I say, do whatever you like best.

    However, I would like to object to the idea that the pronoun “he” indicates some special status for men. It’s quite the opposite. English uses masculine pronouns for persons because the language lacks neutered pronouns for persons (this is a generalized linguistic characteristic that is applied outside of pronouns as well). This creates an ambiguity between males and neuters rather than an exclusion of females from the category of neuter. This ambiguity has been used to aggrandize men as often as to denigrate – generally for cheap political shots.

    I suppose, alternating he/she (within a work, or across all literature) is a fair evolution beyond the ambiguity. In the end, the best solution might be to remember that English neuters to the masculine and stop reading so much into it.

  38. Last comment, I swear.

    I’ve been thinking about it and I can’t see why it’s so hard just to come up with a new word that’s gender neutral.

    The word should be based on ‘it’ but made to mean people instead of things. And we could change it by just adding a couple letters in front. Maybe one each from ‘she’ and ‘he’ and you’d come up with ‘shi…’

    Hrm… Maybe I should go back to the drawing board.

  39. Jessica,
    Kudos for such a classy way of highlighting the issue. For the record, I don’t believe the issue would have come up had you used ‘he’.

  40. word ver – calonke
    The sound that was made when I hit my forehead againts my desk after reading you were called out on the exclusive use of she when writing on your Blog.

    I noticed it from the beginning and found it refreshing.

  41. I’m a he, and I don’t care. Even if you use ‘he’ only to describe idiotic behavior, I still don’t care. I read for the advice and industry insights, and that’s all – though being entertained isn’t bad either.

  42. Jessica, I’m very upset over your use of the feminine pronoun and as soon as I can make up a reason for why someone would be upset about it, I will claim that is my reason for being upset and demand that you edit all back entries of your blog to make me feel better about that reason!

  43. I use “s/he” a lot when I’m writing casually on my blog or other websites. I don’t see why I should have to choose one pronoun or the other, since it’s not formal writing.

  44. I prefer keeping our little quirks. I would hate to see a politically correct, genderless pronoun make her way into usage.

    My wife was so mad that she screamed.
    My wife was so mad that he screamed.
    My wife was so mad that mitymang screamed.

    All three mean have distinct meanings. If pronoun usages alters the meaning of the sentence, then it matters.

    I’m dreading the influx of texting words like b, u, 2, 8, str8, lite, nite, nitelite, LOLing, PMSing (I’m LOLing), and bling. I really dislike the word BLING.

  45. Ha! Just another example of how our culture is permeated by the “male gaze.” Why is that we use “he” as the fall back pronoun anyway? Why don’t we, as women, question THAT more? There are two genders – why would the pronoun referring to the male gender be considered the appropriate one? I love it when folks use She instead of he because it generates discussion and hopefully, makes people open their eyes and start to question why things are the way that they are. And yes, I’m a feminist, and yes, I studied gender in grad school. But does that mean I get angry if someone uses He? No, but it does mean I get annoyed when people feel the need to berate someone who opts to use She. Think, people. Think. Yay, Jessica!

  46. I noticed.

    I figured the majority of your writers and editors and fellow agents were female. I wonder if that also leads me to assume that those who use “he” as their fallback pronoun are solely talking about men?

    I think it would require more self-reflection than I have available at present. But I’ll keep my mind open to thinking about it.

  47. I think anyone who gets bent out of shape over the use of feminine pronouns has issues beyond the scope of this blog. If this person is a writer, I venture it’s someone I would not want to work with.

  48. @ Anon who replied to Enusan and claimed that using “they” instead of “he” or “she” is wrong:

    You are wrong.

    Check the dictionary; it’s clearly stated that while “they” is a pronoun, its use is also permitted in instances where the writer wants to avoid using “he” or “she”.

    So the statement, “Whatever idiot wrote this doesn’t know what they’re doing at all,” is perfectly correct.

    Personally, I don’t use “he” or “she” unless I know I’m referring to a “he” or a “she”. If I’m referring to both (like readers) or someone whose gender I don’t know, I use “they,” just like in a lot of textbooks, magazines, articles, books, etc.

  49. Jessica, you are absolutely right. It shouldn’t even be a question. I noticed you use ‘she’ and always assumed it was because you are a woman.
    Enuf said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.