Gendered Pronouns and the Singular “They”
  • 3-minute read
  • 7th January 2017

Gendered Pronouns and the Singular “They”

To refer to a man in the third person, we say “he.” To refer to a woman, we say “she.” But if we don’t want to specify the gender of someone in the third person, English comes up short.

Our pronouns are increasingly inadequate.
Our pronouns are increasingly inadequate.

This is because there is no singular gender neutral pronoun. In academic writing, this can be problematic, so what should you do if you want to avoid using gendered pronouns in a paper?

Why Are Gendered Pronouns a Problem?

If we’re discussing a specific person whose gender is known, using “he” or “she” isn’t an issue. For example, if writing about Napoleon, it would be reasonable to discuss “his” funny hat.

It is a very silly hat. (Photo: Thomas Quine/flickr)
It is a very silly hat.
(Photo: Thomas Quine/flickr)

However, in academic writing we often refer to people in the abstract using non-gendered terms like “someone”. It’s difficult to know which pronouns to use with gender-neutral words like this, since both “he”/”his” and “she”/”her” imply a particular gender.

Traditionally, academic writing has used “he” and “his” far more in these situations (this linguistic bias is even reflected in the U.S. Constitution, which states than “All men are created equal…”). As such, it was common to see phrases like:

When someone makes a decision, he weighs up various possibilities.

But social changes mean that most people are now uncomfortable with excluding all non-males from academic discourse. So what are the alternatives?

“He or She”

One option is alternating between “he” and “she” in a document, or you can use “he or she”:

When someone makes a decision, he or she weighs up various possibilities.

However, this can make the phrasing of sentences seem awkward. Some style guides, such as APA style, also discourage alternating between “he” and “she.”

The Impersonal “One” or “You”

Another possibility is using the impersonal pronoun “one” in place of gendered pronouns:

When one makes a decision, one weighs up various possibilities.

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This is fairly common in British English, but in the U.S. it sounds pretty old-fashioned, so the second person “you” is favored instead:

When you make a decision, you weigh up various possibilities.

But this can sound informal or too conversational, as if you’re addressing the reader directly.

Rephrasing the Sentence

If none of the above are suitable, it might be a good idea to rephrase the sentence in a way that avoids using a gendered pronoun. For example, we could write:

When making a decision, it is necessary to weigh up various possibilities.

This is often the best choice as long as it doesn’t lead to sentences becoming too complicated.

The Singular “They”

Finally, an increasingly popular option is using the gender-neutral second-person pronoun “they” to refer to a single person of unknown gender. This avoids gendered language:

When someone makes a decision, they weigh up various possibilities.

However, some consider this informal or ungrammatical, since it involves using a plural verb (“weigh”) in combination with a singular subject (“someone”).

The key thing is therefore to check your style guide and pick what works best for you.

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