To what extent is the common usage of "der" with "jemand" considered sexist now, and what ways are most commonly used to solve the sexist problem (if one exists)?

An example sentence that I am translating:

If you meet someone with the last name Frigon, chances are they can trace their roots back to New France.

Wenn du jemanden mit dem Familiennamen Frigon kennenlernst, in aller Wahrscheinlichkeit kann er seine Herkunft zurück auf Neu Frankreich führen.

English solves the problem by either:

a) incorrectly using the word "they," as in the example above;

b) assigning one gender (usually male);

If the reader looks closely, he will notice that his...

c) alternating genders;

If the reader looks closely, he will notice that... She might also find that...

d) or, by assigning both genders to everything in a ridiculous mess.

If the reader looks closely, s/he will notice that his/her conception of...

  • 2
    Without going into detail... "jemand" has the grammatical gender "masculine" and it can refer to persons regardless of their sex. The sex of a person is the same as the the gender of most of the reference words. So if you want to use other references than jemand or man, you will get a clash of grammatical genders. That is something you should avoid, but not because it is sexist but only because it is not nice to read or hear. So... if you need other reference words you should avoid using "jemand"
    – Emanuel
    Jul 24, 2014 at 17:48
  • What would you use instead? For example in my sentence above?
    – Kanadier
    Jul 24, 2014 at 17:50
  • You could also use "eine Person". Then the grammatical gender is "feminine". But "the problem" is the same (I don't think that it's a problem).
    – hellcode
    Jul 24, 2014 at 17:58
  • I would actually think about using just "der"... "... dann kann der seine Herkunft nach ..." It keeps the gender of "jemand" without "avataring" it the way "er" does. Still there might be a bias toward men. Person works fine but sounds like you were trying really hard to avoid gender clash. I think I might just be pc and say "kann er oder sie ihre Wurzeln..."
    – Emanuel
    Jul 24, 2014 at 20:56
  • I guess I could have written an answer but anyway... a few words about the techniques you mentioned. Alternating genders would be SUPER-confusing and must not be done. They is not an option either as you'd jump in number, which doesn't work well in German. Trying to be PC would be a pain since, if you split up and say er/sie, you'd ALSO need to say Leser(in). And awful lot of marking for a simple sentence. The er/sie-split suggests that gender matters so you cannot just say "Leser" then. At least to me that would clash. That leaves us with option b) which is common practice
    – Emanuel
    Jul 24, 2014 at 21:04

1 Answer 1


One possible circumvention would be to use the following formulation:

Wenn du jemanden mit dem Familiennamen Frigon kennenlernst, dann kann diese Person aller Wahrscheinlichkeit nach ihre Wurzeln bis nach Neufrankreich zurückverfolgen.

As others have noted in the comments, this implies the feminine (grammatical) gender, and some may thus not see it as a solution.

However, I think that the root of the discomfort that gendered phrases like the one in your original sentence bring about is caused by the specific use of "er" or "sie", which are personal pronouns and are perceived to correspond more closely to biological gender (although they are still grammatical genders). Therefore, by using the noun "Person" you avoid the personal pronoun issue altogether. And as an added bonus, you still can use jemand in your primary clause.

Addressing OP's further remarks:

Among a certain crowd in all languages with grammatical gender there have been discussions of different solutions. However, due to the nature of language use and the broad political spectrum, there has been no concurrence (with perhaps the notable exception of Sweden which has added a gender-neutral 'hen' to the official national encyclopedia) across the board. For example in Spanish there is the use of the @-sign to correlate with both feminine and masculine adjective endings.

German language officials in the German-speaking countries of the world have not yet codified any of the proposed solutions (although, in Germany gender inclusive language has been requested of public bodies), so the use of one of these would be much akin to what you have referred to as an "incorrect" usage of 'they' for the second person singular by English speakers (which I for one am now completely accustomed to and have been using for years now). More information about possible solutions for gender neutrality in German can be found in this question.

Additional Resources

  1. Wikipedia Entry: Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender

    Traditional German: Wir brauchen einen erfahrenen Informatiker.

    Stated twice (hendiadys): Wir brauchen eine erfahrene Informatikerin oder einen erfahrenen Informatiker.

    Using slashes: Wir brauchen eine/n erfahrene/n Informatiker/in.

    By highlighting the suffix -in: Wir brauchen eine erfahrene InformatikerIn; sometimes Wir brauchen eineN erfahreneN InformatikerIn. This is considered bad style, although sometimes used.

    Grammatically masculine form, with indication that two genders are implied: Wir brauchen einen erfahrenen Informatiker (m/w).

    Frequently, too, job ads will use a pseudo-English term to avoid the issue: Computer-Scientist (m/w) gesucht! "Computer scientist (m/f) sought!"

  2. Article on Deutsche Welle: German university opts for gender-neutral language

  • Changed the German text a bit, double check please.
    – user6191
    Jul 24, 2014 at 18:45
  • This answer is helpful, but I still wonder whether there are comparable German "solutions" to the "problem" like I outlined in English in my question. In academic circles in English such language issues can be fiery. Is it mostly a non-issue in German? People just write around the grammatical issue?
    – Kanadier
    Jul 24, 2014 at 20:35
  • @Kanadier... a "Leser" in a text is usually just referred to by the male "arsenal" (er, ihn, sein). I'm not a woman, so I don't know if they feel addressed though.
    – Emanuel
    Jul 24, 2014 at 20:59
  • @Milchgesicht... fully agree with your answer, and I find "Person" not to sound "woman" at all. It is really just a person. I think just the police and law speech (Die gesuchte Person ist zwischen...) should be enough to coin that.
    – Emanuel
    Jul 24, 2014 at 21:00
  • @Kanadier I've edited my answer with some additional information about how gender-neutral language is approached in German and other languages with grammatical gender.
    – Noktasizi
    Jul 24, 2014 at 22:04

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