This post was originally posted in March 2021.
Although many of our language conventions are nested in the gender-binary, language is not fixed or set in stone. Language is―and has always been―fluid. As people of all gender identities become more visible in our world and on our campuses, it’s increasingly important that we adapt academic writing conventions to include everyone.
As we mark another UAlberta Pride with celebration and activism, let’s also talk about a few ways to make our academic writing a more inclusive.
The English language is not very overtly gendered. Only a small percentage of English words are gendered, while most other words are never gendered (verbs, adjectives, etc.).
The most frequently-used gendered words are pronouns for people, and nouns. Pronouns are shortcuts, referring back to someone discussed earlier. In English, only singular third-person pronouns are explicitly gendered. And those can be split into 2 main categories:
- To refer to a specific individual
- To refer to a singular generic or non-specific person
Other gendered words are common nouns, most of which describe professions.
Questioning Gender Relevance
Before we delve into specifics, a good first question to ask: is gender relevant or important at all, in your context? Gender should only be highlighted if it’s actually relevant to your point.
When using pronouns, there are many cases when gender is irrelevant, unnecessary and can actually cause ambiguity. For example, if you’re quoting an authority on the birds of Alberta from a published paper, the author’s gender is likely irrelevant. Try to reword the sentence so that pronouns are not necessary. Using a person’s surname can have the bonus effect of reducing ambiguity when citing multiple sources in one paragraph.
As a rule: never assume gender, and avoid guessing based on a name or photo.
Personal pronouns for an individual, when known
According to all three of the most commonly-used academic writing style guides (MLA, APA, and Chicago), it is always appropriate to use any pronouns for an individual person when it is known. This can include common pronouns, as well as newer pronouns (also known as neopronouns): read The Landing‘s Ask My Pronouns for more examples!
Some people may use multiple pronouns; in that case, it’s okay to use any.
If you know of a person’s identified pronouns, they should be used accordingly. For example:
- Janet Mock discusses her activism and pronouns in this interview.
- Rachel is a new friend; I met them in Introduction to Physics.
- My professor shared his pronouns on the first day of class. He also went over the syllabus and assigned some readings.
- I’m roommates with Alex, so it’s convenient for me to feed zir cat when ze have to work late.
Generic pronouns for individuals, or when gender is unknown / unknowable
As a generic, they pronouns have been moving from informal usage to become widely accepted by authorities on academic writing. Because this use has been common in English for a long time, it is intuitive to use and unobtrusive.
Most authorities on writing now endorse they as the correct word as a singular pronoun, with:
- They as subject
- Them as the object
- Their as possessive
- Themselves or Themself as reflexive
According to MLA and APA, when referring to someone whose gender is unknown, it is appropriate to use they pronouns. For example:
- A. Lee-Jones argues in their paper…
- Someone left their textbook in the library.
- Every student should keep a careful eye on their laptop in public spaces.
However, the Chicago Manual of Style is watching the generic use of they pronouns, stating:
They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground.
If you’ve been asked to use Chicago Style, check with your instructor to be sure.
- Either “he” or “she” as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to people of all genders.
- The combined “he or she”, unless you want to highlight gender for a specific reason.
- Avoid combination terms like “(s)he” and “s/he”, which can be distracting.
- Avoid switching from “he” or “she” to “they” based on someone’s appearance; again, do not assume gender.
Most English nouns that contain gender markers have to do with professions. Unless the genders of individuals are relevant, replace the gendered nouns with neutral equivalents.
- Fireman / Firewoman = Fire Fighter
- Waiter / Waitress = Wait Staff
- Congressman / Congresswoman = Congressional representative / Congressperson
I’m not a French speaker, so I asked colleagues for help. Here are a few resources they recommended:
Due to the grammatical gender in the French language, gender-inclusive writing in French presents certain challenges. However, there is an increasing amount of French-language writing guides that address le “langage épicène” or “la rédaction épicène”. Here are few resources to check out:
- McGill University Library: Écriture inclusive
- Université de Saint-Boniface: Guide de rédaction épicène
- Egale: Grammaire neutre
Language is, and has always been, a fluid and changing tool. Its meaning and uses will vary, depending on context. We tried to suggest some of the best practices for frequent use cases in academic writing, but it is by no means comprehensive. In compiling this blog post, I learned a lot, and I hope to keep learning. Here are a few resources that I found informative and interesting in my search:
For an ESL/EFL perspective: Cambridge University Press’s English Learning blog: Singular “They”: Teaching a Changing Language
Brief overview of languages around the world: Washington Post: A guide to how gender-neutral language is developing around the world
A great blogging copyeditor: The Radical Copyeditor Blog
More from the Library News blog: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Guide
Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “They”
APA Style: Bias-free Language: Gender
MLA Style Center: How do I use singular they?
The Chicago Manual of Style: Gender-neutral singular pronouns (requires library subscription access)