Personal agency is agency prototypically possessed by a person. That is the idea that a person can make conscious decisions about their behaviour in the real world and act accordingly. Contrast non-personal agency.
Personal agency is the basis of the primary grammatical gender system in English - that is the personal agentive gender system. In this system, the first person and second person pronouns imply personal agency since if one is speaking or being addressed, one must have personal agency. The third person singular pronoun sets ("he, she, her, him") are used to refer to people but the third person neuter pronoun "it" is used to refer to things. However, the third person plural pronouns do not mark for personal agency, so they can be used any referents regardless of personal agency.
There are however, some complications:
- Relating to people:
- Probably most importantly, some people may not self-identify with either masculine or feminine sociological genders and prefer that others use gender neutral pronouns, particularly singular they to refer to them.
- People often naturally use singular they in situations where gender is unimportant or unknown.
- Babies are sometimes considered to possess personal agency, but occasionally not - hence "it" may be used to refer to a baby.
- Not relating to people:
- Animals are sometimes considered to possess personal agency, but sometimes not. "Higher" animals like dogs are more likely to be "he" or "she", "lower" animals "it" like spiders.
- Some machines are also sometimes personified. This applies particularly to ships, but can also apply to machines like steam locomotives, etc. Modern style guides may recommend against this usage.
- God is also treated as a person, and usually referred to using capitalised third person masculine pronouns He/Him/His/His/Himself.