• 3-minute read
  • 9th October 2016

Alternatives to Gendered Pronouns in Academic Writing

For a long time, the language used in academic writing was very masculine, partly because women have historically been excluded from higher education. Recently, though, academics have been trying to use gendered pronouns more equally.

We’ve still got some way to go, but it’s a start.
(Image: London Student Feminists/wikimedia)

But why are gendered pronouns problematic? And how should you use them in your work?

Gendered Pronouns and Academic Writing

In English, we have different third-person pronouns for the different genders. The masculine pronouns are ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’, while the feminine pronouns are ‘she’, ‘her’ and ‘hers’.

The generic ‘he’ used to be common in writing, especially when referring to non-specific individuals. For instance, you might have come across passages like this:

When someone emigrates, he leaves the country and settles elsewhere.

Here, the indefinite pronoun ‘someone’ is paired with the gendered pronoun ‘he’, since English doesn’t have a gender neutral pronoun that fits in this sentence.

However, when using ‘he’ like this, 51% of humanity is unrepresented (i.e. every ‘she’ in the world). As a result, there’s increasing desire to find a more inclusive pronoun to use instead.

There's some women here. They're carrying guns and demanding long-overdue linguistic representation. We should probably listen to them. (Photo: Israel Defense Forces/wikimedia)
There are some heavily armed women here demanding overdue linguistic representation. We should probably listen.
(Photo: Israel Defense Forces/wikimedia)

Can I Use Gendered Pronouns in an Essay?

While generic use of ‘he’ should be avoided, gendered pronouns have a place in academic writing. If you know the gender of the person you’re discussing, for instance, you should always use the appropriate pronoun:

Edith Cowan was famous for her tireless social campaigning.

In the above, ‘her’ is correct because Edith Cowan was a woman (just as ‘he’ would be correct if referring to Robert Menzies or Douglas Nicholls).

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Gender Neutral Alternatives

If referring to someone whose gender is unknown or a non-specific individual, a gender neutral alternative is preferable. One option here is to use both ‘he’ and ‘she’:

When someone emigrates, he or she leaves the country and settles elsewhere.

This can read a little awkwardly, though, especially if used too often. Another possibility is using the impersonal first-person pronoun ‘one’:

When one emigrates, one leaves the country and settles elsewhere.

However, this sounds quite old-fashioned (using the second-person pronoun ‘you’ in the same way, by comparison, sounds a bit too informal for academic writing).

The Singular ‘They’

Perhaps the most elegant solution is to use the ‘singular they’. This is when the third-person plural pronoun ‘they’ is used to discuss individual persons:

When someone emigrates, they leave the country and settle elsewhere.

Note that the verbs in this sentence (i.e. ‘leave’ and ‘settle’) are also changed, since the plural forms are used with ‘they’, even when it refers to a single individual.

The main problem is that this is still a non-standard use, so some consider it incorrect or informal. As such, you should always check your style guide or ask your supervisor whether using the singular ‘they’ in your written work is allowed.

Comments (2)
10th April 2020 at 00:21
I have read many (more recent) academic books where the author alternates between generic use of 'he/him/his' and 'she/her/hers' between instances or paragraphs. Is this form acceptable?
    10th April 2020 at 09:55
    Hi, Cody. It may depend on whether you're following a specific style guide (e.g. APA prefers 'they', 'he or she' or 'she or he'), but alternating is an option many people use. And as long as you remain consistent within passages of text (i.e. not skipping from 'he' to 'she' within a paragraph in a way that may be ambiguous), it is usually a good solution.

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