I've seen the following comment used by a Stack Exchange user on several chess posts.

Please don't assume that a chess player must be male. There is too much discrimination against women in chess circles, and defaulting to male pronouns perpetuates the culture that women are unwelcome.

I wonder if the statement: "defaulting to male pronouns perpetuates the culture that women are unwelcome", with respect to chess circles, is actually true.

Are there any accredited studies/reports to support the commenter's claim? Or is this the user's own opinion/propaganda?

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    I have never seen any discrimination against women other than that which was also done against many more men who are also weaker players. Certainly nobody does anything to the top players whether male or female.
    – yobamamama
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 14:27
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    “Are there any accredited studies/reports to support the commenter's claim? Or is this the user's own opinion/propaganda?” This is a bit of a false dichotomy. I doubt there are any accredited studies showing that throwing eggs at chess players puts them off their game, but if I suggest it’s unwelcoming, would you say that was just my opinion? People generally react negatively to about having eggs thrown at them, so the burden of proof isn’t on me to show that it causes problems in chess. Similarly, you can find plenty of women reporting how unwelcome default “him” make them feel. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 1:22
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    To clarify: I’m not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t question the claim. But it’s not reasonable to suggest that unless there are “accredited studies”, we should dismiss it as pure opinion/propaganda. We should weigh the reasons to believe it against the reasons to disbelieve it, rather than holding one of those directions to a high standard and not asking about the other. Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 1:40
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    I'd throw in that anecdotal evidence is still a form of evidence. It takes effort to take many N=1 datasets and give an "accredited study/report", though a quality which good communities share is their ability to make decisions and consider information which isn't widely agreed upon. If done incorrectly it'll be unwise and tyrannical, but I've been in communities where unpopular but wise changes have proven effective and popular after enough time. I'd say change is reasonable, but being nasty and tyrannical in enforcing a policy like this isn't. For me the benefits outweigh the costs.
    – Brayton
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 6:55
  • I played a high school girl in a tournament. After nearly 5 hours of play she won. It was a great game and my only regret was that we didn't have time to go over it together since they were waiting on us to start the next round. Some guy came over and asked with a bit smile how it felt to be beat by a little girl. Turned out to be her dad. Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 20:55
  • As a non-native speaker. To me "singular they" sounds weird. It's already confusing enough that you can't distinguish singular and plural "you". If this makes more people happy, I'd rather use generic "she" than singular "they"
    – David
    Commented Oct 24, 2020 at 19:20

6 Answers 6


The Code of Conduct says:

Be inclusive and respectful.

Avoid sarcasm and be careful with jokes — tone is hard to decipher online. Prefer gender-neutral language when uncertain. If a situation makes it hard to be friendly, stop participating and move on.

What is meant by 'gender neutral' is explained in one of the FAQ:

5. "Gender-neutral"? Does that mean like "he/she"?

Not quite. While “he/she” and similar compound pronouns are better than a default masculine “he” alone, gender-neutral writing works to avoid gendered terms entirely when gender is unknown, either through rephrasing statements to avoid pronouns or through the usage of singular (or plural) “they”. For examples and other methods, see Kate Gregory’s answer to a related question - Define "gender-neutral language"? (CoC FAQ)

One could interpret that as only pertaining to the author of a question, answer or comment, not to a hypothetical chess player mentioned in the post under discussion. However, even in those situations, gender-neutral language is preferred:

But sometimes you find yourself referring to a poster or a person that a poster mentioned:

IMHO (but I could be interpreting the CoC wrong) it's not required to do so.

  • Thank you for sharing this information and the suggested edits to the OP. @Glorfindel I found this to be the most helpful answer here. Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 15:38
  • My understanding of english is very limited. But they?....maybe because I have studied english just in school, for childs, but translating in spanish sounds weird to refer a single person in plurar. Anyhow thanks for translating the relevant info with chess users that do not frequent meta. You do an excellent job, thx
    – user18196
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 21:18
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    To add to this answer, if I may: the CoC FAQ directly states that ... it is not a CoC violation to use gendered pronouns as long as you use stated pronouns once they’re made known., so @Glorfindel's interpretation in the last line of his answer is correct.
    – konsolas
    Commented Dec 15, 2019 at 14:10
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    @Universal_learner "they" has been used as both singular and plural since at least the 14th century, more than 600 years. It is often not taught because some people believe it is incorrect. You will find that it is very common for native speakers to use singular they, however.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Dec 23, 2019 at 12:42
  • You is both the singular and plural. If it's acceptable and sensible in the second person, it should be just the same in the third person. @InfiniteFlash
    – Nij
    Commented Jan 20, 2020 at 8:10

It is excellent that this is being talked about, it is a positive sign of growth in our chess community! I recall one of the moderator candidates in the last elections brought up this topic in their presentation and explained it quite concisely in my opinion. So I will simply quote them here:

Sadly, in many cultures there is a clear (not even implicit) bias against women playing chess, and when already one's tone and choice of pronoun (irrespective of the language) assume a hypothetical chess player to be male, that bias gets perpetuated, and finds its way into influencing choices made even at an individual level.

Also pertinent here were the follow-up discussions:

For instance in terms of gender assumptions, at least one instance can be found in nearly every post! These are wrong habits that have been established as normal in the chess community, starting from chess literature all the way to live commentaries. The general choice of pronoun in referring to a chess player is merely an example that reflects poor and sexist conventions. Often these are dismissed on account of practicality or tradition, when in fact, referring to a side in chess, it makes far more sense to simply speak about the pieces w.r.t their colors, and as such being a plural term (white/black pieces), it can be subsequently referred to as "they". Otherwise, simply using "they" and "their" instead of "he" and "his" respectively, is a perfectly valid way of maintaining the discussion gender-agnostic. This takes minimal effort to improve upon, but has far reaching consequences in breaking poor habits and sets an example for putting an end to such commonly perpetuated biases. With a community such as chess SE, filled so many great people, all gathered here for their love of chess, we can be setting that example!

Language habits are just an example of behavior and consideration. Their point of poor habits building their way into assumptions and people's judgments is oh-so-important. Even at the level of local clubs, I have often times (still to present time) witnessed male players e.g. resigning to their female opponent with disrespect [*] and acting in complete dismay that they are losing to a female player. And these behaviors are also witnessed by the kids playing around them and unsurprisingly this gets passed on: the typical chit-chat being "you lost to a girl!"

[*]: e.g., not shaking hands, playing until the checkmate when they would have otherwise already resigned against a male player, laughing in dismay and mockingly, not accepting to stay to post-analyse the game together, etc.

So I believe this question of how to talk about chess players and our adopted language for describing a chess game, has far reaching depths than it just being a question of the English language: it is just an example of something that takes minimal effort to incorporate into one's habits in order to break poor sexist habits. Clearly, this alone does not solve the aforementioned problems in the chess world, but it is a start showing commitment and will as a community to become more open-minded and inclusive, and talking about it matters as it creates more awareness.


Just to add a longer-form explanation to the comments I made above. I think what we're seeing now is not so much an increase in the acceptability of the singular 'they' in the english language as a decrease in the acceptability of the generic 'he.'

We had a minor revolt recently (hey, when you're as old as I am, you can call events from the last couple of centuries "recent" with only a modicum of irony) demanding that firm rules be applied to english usage that had not been in existence previously, along the lines of the ban on split infinitives and the terminal preposition (language rules up with which we should not put). But for the most part writers of the language from Chaucer to Dickenson were quite content to use the singular they, and people spoke it every day ("I'll leave a note for the next occupant telling them what happened before I leave").

But for almost as long as the English language has been around, 'they' has been capable of a singular meaning. Often it was paired with "one" to help establish the singular context, as in "one might think they had strayed from the path when confronted with that sight," but it's been acceptable usage for at least 80% of the timespan that generic 'he' has been. And as for agreeing with the verb, if you don't like 'they is' use 'they are,' after all we say 'you are' all the time without ever getting confused over how many of you there are by the second person singular construction.

The generic 'he' has followed right along and generally been accepted as well, but of late that is changing, and as the living thing it is, the rules of the language will change along with it. As such, the days of the generic 'he' are, I suspect, numbered. It may linger around, but start to feel as stilted as constructions like 'one wonders what to make of this' feel today.

As to whether feeling excluded by the generic 'he' has been the primary cause of the sad deficiency in the numbers of female chessplayers, I doubt there's been a study, and I would probably also doubt the veracity of that statement, as well. As a chess coach I have seen enough bad and exclusionary behavior by males toward females to believe there are far stronger reasons than a simple pronoun for that, but I also think that's beside the point.

The point is communicating effectively. Since both the singular 'they' and the generic 'he' have been acceptable usage for most of the lifespan of English, and one is causing more of a ruckus, and more of a distraction, shouldn't we be using the other, if not out of courtesy then out of a simple desire to communicate efficiently?

I'm not going to grammar-police someone's use of the generic 'he;' they can use it if they want to (see what I did there?). They just shouldn't use some non-rule foisted recently upon English speakers to justify it, and should be aware that a growing number of readers will simply stop listening and turn to the next writer if they do. The point of language isn't to follow rules made up by someone sitting off in an ivory tower somewhere; it's to communicate. And if a speaker's choice of words loses their listeners, they would be well advised to revisit that choice, eh?

(With that the old man steps down, folds up his portable soapbox, sticks it into his coat pocket, and trundles off into the darkness.)

  • "As to whether feeling excluded by the generic 'he' has been the primary cause" The person quoted in the question never said that it is the primary cause. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 3:36

For me, it is simply ENGLISH. I care more about subject-verb agreement, and your opponent is singular. If you want to use a pronoun, you either have to write he/she, or just one of them for it to agree with the verb.

I am not going to bend to the PC police, and if a woman, or anyone, is that put-off by this, how are she, or he, going to deal with the real world, let alone, play chess?

See, how silly that starts to look when you try to make the PC police happy? They are the ones, who are making incorrect assumptions.

I also cannot imagine that it has any real affect on female participation in chess so maybe they should mind their own business, and worry about themselves, and their posts.

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    If you think that looking silly is bad, why do you show your belief in something you call "the PC police"? That is just name-calling. It looks silly, and it's not a nice way to respond to people who are just trying to promote better alternatives to "he" when the person isn't known to be male. "He/she" which you mentioned is one alternative, but there is another: "they".
    – Rosie F
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 9:02
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    In spanish it is difficult to adopt gender neutral language I don't know how silly is the policy in english but in spanish it is meta.stackexchange.com/q/339133
    – user18196
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 11:44
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    The same in Russian, and many other languages, since gender is built in to the word. Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 12:00
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    "I also cannot imagine that it has any real affect on female participation in chess" [citation needed]
    – DQdlM
    Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 16:14
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    That is opinion. The same as the people claiming it. The onus is really on them to back up their claim. Commented Dec 10, 2019 at 16:17
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    Umm, no. I cannot let such misinformation stand. The use of the singular "they" goes all the way back to the 1300s and has long been acceptable usage. (Don't take my word for it, ask Merriam-Webster. merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they). I keep hearing this same old tiresome canard about they being plural; I wonder how it started, because it certainly has no basis in fact.
    – Arlen
    Commented Dec 27, 2019 at 19:17
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    "For me, it is simply ENGLISH. I care more about subject-verb agreement, and your opponent is singular." It should be "being singular", you have extraneous commas in "let alone, play chess", "See, how silly", “They are the ones, who”, and "themselves, and their posts”, and you used “affect” instead of “effect”. So I guess you are inflexible about grammar only when it serves political purposes? Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 3:30
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    "I am not going to bend to the PC police" Is anyone threatening to arrest you? "if a woman, or anyone, is that put-off by this, how are she, or he, going to deal with the real world, let alone, play chess?" You don't understand how someone could find the behavior worth criticizing, and be capable of playing chess? Seriously? “See, how silly” No, I don't see how silly it is. Simply asserting that you find something to be silly is not an argument. “I also cannot imagine” I don't see why we should find your level of imagination to be a matter of interest. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 3:30

I think it’s incorrect these days to use he when the gender is unknown. The meaning of he has changed. I would normally prefer to use “they” or “one”.

If you spot that I get it wrong in any of posts please forgive me and feel free to make the change.


No. It is standard English usage. Chess does not yet kowtow to the political nonsense some people are using to try to change how we talk, think, and what we believe.

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    Maybe 50 years ago, it was standard English usage to use "he" without consideration for whether women were to be included. Fortunately, English usage has evolved a little since then. Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 4:57
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    It is still standard English usage no matter what the hard core lefties are saying as part of their strategy to be able to tell us all how to speak and think.
    – yobamamama
    Commented Dec 17, 2019 at 21:51
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    No, it really isn't. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 0:31
  • @DawoodsaysreinstateMonica It was not about consideration, but grammar and semantics. It was grammatically and semantically correct to include women in generic "he". "he" had (and still does occasionally) a neuter meaning: "Every man for himself!" (both "man" and "himself" are being used gender neutrally, and there is no commonly accepted phrase that replaces this). Most instances of gender neutral "he"/"him" can be replaced with "they"/"them" nowadays. The meaning of "he"/"him" is changing to become even more masculine, but has not completely lost its gender neutral meaning yet.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 1:31
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    Weellll. I'll give you that it's common usage. But it's no more correct than using "they" and the generic 'he' is more likely to give offense or cause a ruckus, so why use it? Singular 'they' has been accepted usage since the 1300's for a person of unknown gender; it's only in recent years that people have been inventing the rule that 'they' is always plural. It's not, and never has been true.
    – Arlen
    Commented Dec 27, 2019 at 19:28

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