Compared to nouns, many pronouns have few or no synonyms. This is particularly applicable to the personal pronouns he, she, it etc. In place of a noun like a boy, you can use guy, chap, son, young man etc. (from the same word class), depending on the context. And, instead of the adjective, beautiful, you can opt for pretty, amazing, wonderful, charming etc. But the likes of ‘he’ or ‘she’ can be so grammatically/semantically closed that it is difficult to get other pronouns to refer to them without largely reconstructing the original clause. This is part of the reason ‘they’ become an alternative for he or she when you want to avoid repetition or when you want to avoid gender bias:
Someone left their pen on my table.
Yet, the personal pronoun, ‘it’, is a bit flexible. It may not have many synonyms, but it can be used outside the non-human context it is usually associated with. Normally, it refers to things, collocating with non-human objects like tree, card, play and house:
- The tree used to stand here. It has fallen.
- I wanted to watch the play but I learnt it was not interesting.
Using it for a baby
It can be insulting or demeaning to use ‘it’ for the bundle of joy that a baby is. The husband and wife had worked hard to produce the pregnancy. The woman had carried the pregnancy for nine long months. She and the doctors have laboured intensely to get the baby out safely. Now imagine someone calling the angel ‘it’ as if the person was a stone. Quite demeaning.
Grammatically speaking, however, you can use ‘it’ for a baby when you are not yet sure of its gender:
Mrs Uwa has just been delivered of a baby, but I don’t know if it is a boy or girl.
Is it a male or female – I mean the baby?
The alternative here lies in using ‘they’ instead of ‘it’.
Are they male or female – I mean the baby?
- Using commas with ‘however’
- Try transferred epithets, not transferred aggression
- Hmm. Some still mix ‘were’ with ‘where’!
It sounds odd grammatically but it is an acceptable construction.
The expression, ‘It’s David!’, indicates another instance ‘it’ is used with humans. Perhaps David was at the door knocking and someone just peeped through the window and saw him – whether he was being expected or not. Generally, ‘it’ is used in a dummy situation like ‘It’s raining’ or ‘It’s clear that he was not there.’ The ‘dummy it’ is the empty or grammatical one that refers to nothing. More importantly, ‘it’ can be used with humans as in the David’s case. Here are other examples:
Who bought the book?
If there is anyone I like to always sing for, it is Akeem.
Generally, people cease to be animate once they die. They no more possess the characteristics of living things – such as respiration, feeding and excretion. That is the status of a corpse, although some spiritualists may argue that there is more to dying or to being a corpse. But since we are discussing grammar in the physical sense, we take it that ‘it’ is used for a corpse:
The corpse should not be left in the open for long. It should be moved to a mortuary.
- About five people carried the corpse. It appeared to be heavy.
Yet, he or she can be used for a dead body/person or corpse as a mark of respect and continued association with the departed fellow. As a matter of fact, using ‘it’ can sound insulting – as in the case of using it with a baby. Imagine the confusion this innocent statement can cause:
- I learnt your dad died last week. Has it been buried?
- In that context, one can use ‘he’ instead of ‘it’.
- The woman died last month. Her body/She will be laid to rest on Friday.
- She was laid to rest on Friday.
- Her remains were interred on Friday.
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