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I grew up in Yorkshire with the saying "She is the cat's mother", implying it is rude to use the feminine pronoun "she" in the third person.

A rebuke especially directed towards children for having referred to a woman as "she", instead of using her name or an appropriately respectful title.

"She's coming on the trip with us too!"
"Who's 'she', the cat's mother?"
"Sorry, gran is coming with us too."

wiktionary

Does this rule still apply to a modern business email, or is it appropriate to refer to a woman as "she"?

  • I answered your question, but I have to admit I'm completely baffled by your question, so please correct me if I'm missing something. What else would you refer to her aside from "she", if you know she is a woman? – David K Mar 13 at 16:58
  • So the alternatives I can think of are "them", which seems even more rude, and repeating their name, which seems cumbersome and weird. – Toby Wilson Mar 13 at 16:59
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    @TobyWilson Not all of us are from Yorkshire - you need to explain what the phrase means. By my understanding, according to the phrase you shouldn't refer to women as "she" but instead should refer to them by name and title. Unless you force everyone to google, no one will know that from your question. Please edit your question to clarify. – David K Mar 13 at 17:03
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    @TobyWilson As you can see by my utter confusion at your question, that would be your answer. – David K Mar 13 at 17:07
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    As far as I understand it, this phrase is only ever used when a person (normally a child) is referring to a woman, most often a relative (e.g. mum, grandma) as it is not respectful. In every day, work life it is not rude. I'm southern interestingly and my mum has said it to me before although not often. I also live in Yorkshire for about 12 years and haven't heard it once, although I am called duck and love constantly. If you asked "is it appropriate to end an email 'ta love'" that would be more interesting :D – adamcooney Mar 13 at 17:17
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If the person you are referring to is a woman who uses feminine pronouns (she/her/hers), then yes, you refer to her as "she". There is absolutely nothing unprofessional about that. The rules for men and women are identical. You of course should make sure to refer to someone by name at least once at the beginning of an email, and maybe sprinkled throughout your writing just to ease repetition, but it is not considered rude to refer to a woman as "she".

  • "WayWordRadio" clarifies the situation in way to do not call a woman "she", if this woman is present. To do so in an E-Mail is very unlikely :) – Allerleirauh Mar 14 at 11:47
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This sounds like a localism of Yorkshire; as a Canadian, I have never heard of this saying, or heard that it is rude to refer to a woman in the third-person singular ("she") except inasmuch as it is incorrect to use pronouns without first establishing a reference to that pronoun.

If you are working in a company based in Yorkshire and the recipients of your email are also Yorkshirians (?), then sure, use whatever local dialect or custom you have. However, outside of your locale, I don't think this is a common custom.

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I believe the "cat's mother" is because often person A knows clearly to whom "she" refers, but hasn't communicated it to person B. In writing, it's an unclear referent for the pronoun.

So if you have already mentioned who "she" is (Director of Questionology, Susan Smith), then in future references, unless you switch to talking about another person, "she" is fine.

This is one reason why sample questions often have "Alice" and "Bob" - in future sentences, one can use "he" or "she" without being unclear. But if you had "Susan" and "Kathy" in your example, you'd have to make sure it was clear which woman was referred to each time.

So in the example, you could have the child say "Gran is coming on the trip! And she's really excited to show me..." and it's perfectly fine.

This may be better handled on the English Language Usage Stack.

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    They intention of the saying isn't because pronouns are unclear. The saying is somewhat old-fashioned, and means that it is rude or disrespectful to refer to women as "she". The OP mentioned in an earlier edit that this saying does not apply to the use of "he" for men. – David K Mar 13 at 20:01
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    My understanding is that 'she' deserves the "cat's mother" response only when you say something like "Oh no! She's coming with us!". – DJClayworth Mar 13 at 21:52
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I would avoid localized dialect unless you know for certain the recipient is also using the same dialect.

In some cases it might be okay to use local dialect like soda vs pop, but something with gender specific pronouns or double negatives might not be understood clearly.

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    I edited the question to try and clarify what the phrase "She's the cat's mother" actually means, which may affect your answer. – David K Mar 13 at 17:13
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    @DavidK Okay, I understand now. The way the original question stood made it sound like a local dialect to refer to a group of people as a "she" like "she's coming with us?" would mean "are they coming with us?" Your edit makes a lot more sense now. – Dan Mar 13 at 18:24

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