Gender-Neutral Pronoun Usage in Academic Writing

Anthony Gross

Anthony Gross, Consultant

Pronouns are a part of speech that belong to a “closed class” of words, a class to which new words are rarely, if ever, added. Unlike those parts of speech that belong to the “open class,” such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives, pronouns in the English language are more stable. Since the 1970s, though, there has been a demand for less sexist and more gender-neutral language that has led to scrutiny of English’s gendered pronouns. This scrutiny is of interest particularly to those in the academy who must be aware of biases in their writing practices. As part of an academy comprised of men, women, and an increasing number of individuals who do not identity as either traditionally prescribed gender, it is important for student writers to be aware of gendered language and to avoid it (and, therefore, gender biases) when possible.

Perhaps the most blundersome use of gendered language in many students writers’ academic writing is the default to the masculine, third-person, singular pronoun he and the possessive his. In the past, the academy was comprised of mostly men, and despite the entrance and proliferation of women in academics, these masculinized parts of speech have remained the standard. This standard is most evident, and perhaps most problematic, in sentences where writers address hypothetical individuals. For example: “If a firefighter didn’t wear his protective gear, he would be risking serious injury.” In the previous sentence, the hypothetical firefighter is defaulted to being male. Though the writer avoided gender bias in the use of “firefighter” in place of “fireman,” the bias remained in the masculine pronouns. In this particular case, the writer may have defaulted to the masculine pronoun because, in American society, people tend to view firefighting as a masculine profession. This writer, and many others, may not even be aware of this tendency to use masculine pronouns to refer to individuals who hypothetically could be either male or female.

Even if writers are aware of their masculine pronoun usage, they may assume that readers understand the usage as hypothetical and not gender-determinative. However, there have been studies that evidence the masculine pronoun’s tendency to evoke masculine images in readers’ minds (see Gastil’s 1990 study “Generic Pronouns and Sexist Language: The Oxymoronic Character of Masculine Generics”). With the threat of such latent biases seeping through our writing into our readers’ minds, what are our options to make our writing more gender neutral?

While the answers to eliminating gender bias in your academic writing may be more complex than simply dropping the pronoun he from sentences with hypothetical persons, it’s a good place to start. One option writers may opt to use is replacing he with he or she. This addition is more gender-inclusive, but writers must be aware that some professors and general readers may find this option distracting because it can make sentences too convoluted (for example: “A dog owner should walk his or her dog at least twice a day so he or she won’t face accusations of being neglectful.”). Other options include combining the masculine and feminine third person singular to form “s/he” or alternating pronouns throughout a piece of writing. These options, once again, may be distracting, the former for readers’ inability to immediately recognize the combination and the latter for readers’ potential inability to quickly comprehend that the different pronouns are referring to similar hypothetical persons. All of these options also embody the issue that not everybody identifies with the traditional binary of male and female, and, therefore, pronouns involving different forms of he and she are not completely gender-inclusive.

An alternative to gendered pronouns that has gained increasing popularity is the use of singular they. In conversational English, it is not uncommon to use they as a singular pronoun in instances where a speaker has not provided gender information. For instance:

Speaker A: “I’ve really been wanting to try the new restaurant down the road.”
Speaker B: “I have a friend who went there last week.”
Speaker A: “What did they think of the food?”

Speaker B did not provide information about the gender of the friend in the conversation, so Speaker A used the singular third person gender-neutral they to refer to the friend. This usage of they makes sense because the gender of the friend is not important to the content of the dialogue. The use of singular they is not a novel idea but one that is already being adopted by notable institutions. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommends, in addition to the balanced use of he and she, using the singular they/their form, noting that the “construction is becoming increasingly acceptable.” Based on NCTE’s guidelines, The Writing Center Journal (WCJ) has also adopted the use of they as a singular pronoun in their submission guidelines. The University of Vermont is one of the first universities to adopt the gender-neutral pronoun, incorporating it into their campus information system. However, despite the shift some academic institutions are making in how they use gender, they’s adoption as a grammatically-acceptable, singular pronoun is still a point of contention. As NCTE warns, “classroom teachers need to be aware that state and/or national assessments may not regard this construction as correct,” and neither will many university instructors.

So what should student writers do until the issue of gendered pronouns is resolved? This writer suggests that context is key. If you are interested in using a gender-neutral pronoun like they in your writing, consult your professors to make sure they will accept the usage as correct. Likewise, if you find yourself submitting to an academic journal like WCJ, check its submission and style guidelines to see if such usage is acceptable. Style guides like The American Psychological Association (APA) have yet to accept the use of they in the proposed context, but APA does acknowledge the need to avoid gendered pronouns. The Purdue Owl Online Writing Lab lists some acceptable alternatives for those writing in APA, some of which were outlined above. From the Lab’s list of gender-neutral alternatives, the use of plural pronouns is perhaps easiest to incorporate when possible (for example: “the students like their writing” instead of “the student likes his writing”).

Whether you are a grammar-stickler or a pro-singular-they reformist, I offer you this bit of information: language is an ever-evolving and expanding entity, and though traditionally pronouns are a closed-class part of speech, English’s acceptance of they as a singular pronoun would not be the first shift of its kind. The second person pronoun you that is now used singularly—as noted by Dennis Baron, a linguist at the University of Illinois—once functioned as the accusatory plural of thou. If you once referred to a group of people, then why shouldn’t they function as a single person, especially given the demand for gender-neutral pronoun identities in a world that is becoming increasingly less defined by a gender binary?

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