I know a little Arabic, and I also know English. They both have the notion of "gender" built into their syntax. I am Persian and I speak Farsi, which does not have "gender" built into its grammar.

In those languages which have gender, sometimes masculine gender is used to refer to both genders (male and female).

For example, in English, we might say "anyone who leads his team correctly, gets a reward". This includes both men and women.

Does this pattern have a technical name? I want to study about it, but I can't search as I don't know a keyword to find results.

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    it's kinda beside the point, but fyi using "his" in this sense sounds really old-fashioned in English. "They" has been an acceptable pronoun in this case since Middle English, and has been the usual one for centuries. The "rule" that you should use "he" here was made up by 18th & 19th century grammarians who believed that Latin grammar was somehow better than English grammar, and so English grammar should be adjusted to better reflect Latin norms
    – Tristan
    Feb 12, 2021 at 10:14
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    Italian (and I guess Spanish, French, and probably Romanian too) really have generic masculine, that is, the 'standard' way to refer to a generic gender is with the masculine form. Some Italian and Spanish speakers started using @ or * as a suffix to make words gender-neutral (since in those languages grammatic gender is often determined by the last vowel of a word). Example in Italian: ragazzi (boys), ragazze (girls), ragazz* (a group of boys and girls). Same in Spanish: chicos, chicas, chic@s.
    – seldon
    Feb 12, 2021 at 18:18
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    To really include both men and women, you should say: "anyone who leads their team correctly, gets a reward"
    – Patrick
    Feb 12, 2021 at 18:19
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    @Tristan I disagree that epicene "he/him/his" sounds old fashioned. I didn't even notice it in the sentence the first time I read it, although I would write it as "they/them/their".
    – CJ Dennis
    Feb 12, 2021 at 23:25
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    @Tristan despite all the upvotes on your comment "they" has NOT been the usual pronoun for centuries. It wasn't even the usual pronoun 40 years ago. I know because I was alive then. There's nothing wrong with "they", and I have no problem with it. But I have a problem with revisionist history. Pretending that this was not common practice recently trivializes the problem.
    – barbecue
    Feb 13, 2021 at 15:04

2 Answers 2


This strategy to deal with person groups of mixed gender or with single persons of unknown or undetermined gender is named generic masculine. It is quite frequent among languages with grammatical gender.

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    Because of the sexism involved with a generic masculine, some writers will choose to use a generic feminine for balance, which is fair, but admittedly suffers from the same shortcomings. Some languages possess neutral/inclusive pronouns, such as "their" in English (also used by the OP), and "hen" in Swedish. These can be used to address this imbalance or more complex and inadequate solutions like "he/she" (because they don't take non-binary genders into account).
    – Xano
    Feb 13, 2021 at 9:37
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    @Xano Except that most of the times, native speakers consider generic masculine as something without a real gender, while any feminine will always be feminine and never generic. Using a "generic" feminine is in a sense more sexistic as it is almost always understood to include only women, while a generic masculine is almost never understood to include only men.
    – IS4
    Feb 15, 2021 at 1:58
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    For a counterpoint, cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655/readings/purity.html. Feb 15, 2021 at 12:15
  • What native speakers consider, changes over time, and it is fine for people to explore alternative words and phrases to avoid bias, whether that bias has been common for a long time or not. @PatrickStevens That article is amazing in how out of touch it is. Out of the many, many fallacies and willful misunderstandings of the world and language, I'd like to point out that the author is unaware that the singular "they" has been a thing for quite some time now (source: public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they).
    – Xano
    Feb 15, 2021 at 12:20
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    @Xano I'll grant that the race analogy is at best a fraught one, but surely you are not reading that essay as being opposed to gender-neutral language? Feb 15, 2021 at 14:12

The masculine gender/noun class in many languages will be the unmarked option, with other genders/classes being marked. It is often (though not always) possible to use a less marked gender/class. Sometimes a noun might have a marked gender, but other words with agreement affixes might use a less marked gender. One example is Biblical Greek, in which certain adjectives (third declension) have a distinct neuter form, but not a distinct feminine form, and so will take the unmarked gender when agreeing with feminine nouns.

I'm pretty sure I've seen examples before of languages where the noun classes form a hierarchy of markedness which can be illustrated with venn diagrams, to show how marked classes will collapse into their parent classes in some situations, but I can't remember which languages were like that.

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