The Grammar Rules About Who Or What To Call “It”


If you’re anything like us, this two-letter word makes you think of a Stephen King novel or, maybe, a certain cousin from the Addams Family. That’s most likely because It in King’s novel (and the horror movies it spawned) was the word used to describe Pennywise the Clown. And, Cousin Itt was a rather hairy human … yup, Cousin Itt was human.

And these casual usages within entertainment may make it seem like using  it to refer to a human being isn’t so uncommon or bad? Well, we’re here to debunk that … read on.

Where did it come from?

The word it is believed to have showed up in the English language some time before the year 900, a variation of the Middle English hit. (But, wait, isn’t hit the word you use when you deal a blow or strike someone? That version of hit comes from the late Old English hyttan or hittan “come upon, meet with, fall in with, ‘hit’ upon.” Different root. Different word.)

The Middle English hit that gave us it is what etymologists call a neuter word, or a word that’s noting or pertaining to a gender that refers to things classed as neither masculine nor feminine. Hit was originally a neuter of he, a pronoun that is typically used to refer to cisgender men and other masculine-presenting folks.

So, if hit was once a gender neutral variation of he, then a person can be an it, right? Not so fast!

Over time, the word hit in Middle English took on the meaning “thing or animal spoken about before.” Hit stopped referring to a person! Suddenly it referred only to a “thing” or an “animal.” In other words: Language evolved, as it often does.

The issue with it

It is now used as something called a nominative pronoun. Those are the types of pronouns that are usually the subject of a sentence and responsible for the action in a sentence.

There are nominative pronouns for humans, including I, you, he, she, and they, which make clear whether the subject of the sentence is a person or a thing. You’re unlikely to write a sentence about a bookshelf and use “he” or “she,” right? As much as we absolutely adore bookshelves for all the heavy support they provide to our beloved books, a bookshelf is not animate and doesn’t have a gender.

People, on the other hand, have genders. They might be cisgender. They might be transgender. They might be non-binary. But, they do have genders and pronouns to match.

What happens if you don’t know a person’s gender, and why can’t we just substitute it? Well, it’s because when it is used in relation to people, it is used to represent a person or animal understood, previously mentioned, or about to be mentioned whose gender is unknown or disregarded.

Yes, we did just say “person,” but there’s a reason many experts frown on this. Note that last word in the definition: to disregard something means “to pay no attention to; leave out of consideration; ignore.” So, when you’re using it to describe someone, you’re actually ignoring their preferred pronouns, as well as their identities.

They is for the people

They has been used for thousands of years as a term to describe human beings when gender is unknown. It’s even been used to refer to just one person, regardless of gender. And, it’s a great substitute for it when referring to a person. Because being kind to one another is a choice … and a little one-word substitution is a truly kind beginning.

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