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“They” Is the New He or She: Queer Writing in Academic Journals

A few years ago, using the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun was still largely considered grammatically incorrect. However, a growing acceptance of the singular “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun, particularly among LGBTQIA+ communities, was observed in recent years. Since the early 2010s, the singular “they” has become more common in everyday speech and writing. This usage of “they” is not new as it has been used for centuries as a gender-neutral pronoun, but its increased visibility is partly due to the growing acceptance of nonbinary gender identities. In addition, the singular “they” is now more often used to refer to people who are not transgender or nonbinary but whose gender identity is unknown or irrelevant to the context. This trend has also begun to trickle into the academic world, with more and more journals publishing articles that use singular “they” throughout.

History of Singular “They”

The history of the singular “they” in the English language dates to the 14th century. One of the most cited earliest examples of the singular “they” in literature is Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, specifically some versions of The Pardoner’s Tale, which was written around 1395, indicating that the singular “they” was likely used in speech even before that. Other examples of the singular “they” are in the works of Shakespeare, William Thackeray, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde, and some are even found in the King James Bible. 

“And every one to rest themselves betake”
The Rape of Lucrece, William Shakespeare

“I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly”
– Jane Austen

“A person can’t help their birth”
– William Thackeray

In contrast, at the end of the 18th century, the singular “they” became the target of a prescriptive attack, wherein the singular “they” was identified to violate the singular agreement. In the 1960s and 1970s, grammarians and educators explained the implications of using “they” and the options available to writers as they came to a certain acceptance of the pronoun. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, they returned to prescriptivism. For example, The Little, Brown Handbook declared “they” as “wrong” in 1986, although a previous edition stated the pronoun only contradicted readers’ expectations. Handbook authors continue to support class and gender divisions in language and perpetuate linguistic discrimination through similar prohibitions.

 

Gendered and First-Person Pronouns in Academic Writing

Depending on your academic field, you may be able to use first-person pronouns like “I” and “we” in your writing. In general, however, it’s best to avoid second-person pronouns like “you” and “yours.” Third-person pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “them” should be used in a gender-neutral way.

Personal pronouns referring to authors—“I,” “we,” “mine,” and so on—are a source of contention in academic writing. To maintain an objective, impersonal tone and focus on the information rather than the author, the first person has traditionally been avoided in numerous scientific areas. However, using first-person pronouns is becoming more conventional in several genres of academic writing (although they are still more common in some fields than others). Some style guides, such as the American Psychological Association (APA) Style, require using first-person pronouns when referring to one’s actions and opinions.

In English, third-person singular pronouns are historically gendered (“he”/ “him,” “she”/ “her”); however, gender-neutral language is becoming valued by many colleges, publications, and style guidelines. In older writings, masculine pronouns (“he,” “him”) and nouns (“mankind,” “firemen”) were frequently used as the universal or neutral, which is currently thought to be out of date and prejudiced.

 

“They” in Academic Writing

The pronouns “they”/ “them”/ “their” are often the most appropriate choice when referring to someone of unknown or indeterminate gender. In casual circumstances, using “they” has long been used as a singular pronoun, and many style guides, including the APA Style and Modern Language Association (MLA), now support its usage in academic writing. The use of “they” was also accepted and endorsed by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

In the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, APA endorsed using “they” as a singular third-person pronoun, suggesting that it is officially a good practice to use “they” in academic writing.

Before using the singular “they” as per APA, here are some things you should note.


It is important to always use the pronoun that a person has identified themselves with, even if they use the singular “they” as their pronoun.

When pertaining to individuals whose gender pronouns are self-identified, it is best to use to respect their decision and follow suit. Our most widely used pronouns (he/she) in English expressly allude to a person’s gender. These pronouns may not be appropriate for queer, gender-nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender people, causing discomfort and stress.

Listed below are some commonly used pronouns acknowledging an individual’s gender identity.

Pronoun

Description

Forms
(Subject, Object, Possessive, Reflexive)

Xe (pronounced as “zee”)

a popular gender-neutral pronoun commonly used by nonbinary or trans people

Xe, Xem, Xyr/Xyrs, Xemself

Ze (pronounced as “zee” or “heer”)

a popular gender-neutral pronoun, often used by nonbinary or transgender people

Ze, Hir, Hir/Hirs, Hirself

Ey (pronounced as “aye” or “eh”)

a common gender-neutral pronoun, often used by nonbinary people

Ey, Em, Eir/Eirs, Emself

Hir (pronounced as “here”)

a common gender-neutral pronoun, often used by nonbinary people

Hir, Hir, Hir/Hirs, Hirself

Fae (pronounced as “fay”)

a less common gender-neutral pronoun sometimes used by nonbinary people

Fae, Faer, Faer/Faers, Faerself

Hu (pronounced as “hyoom” or “hoom”)

a less common gender-neutral pronoun sometimes used by nonbinary people

Hu, Hu, Hume/Humes, Humeself

They

the most common gender-neutral pronoun, often used by nonbinary or transgender people

They, Them, Their/Theirs, Themself

He

a pronoun often used by male-identifying people, sometimes also used by nonbinary people

He, Him, His/His, Himself

She

a pronoun often used by female-identifying people, sometimes also used by nonbinary people

She, Her, Her/Hers, Herself

 


In cases when you’re going to refer to an individual with a gender unclear or negligible to the context, use “they” as a generic third-person singular pronoun. If you do not know the person’s pronouns, reword the sentence to avoid a pronoun or use the pronoun “they.”

Following the previous table, “they” is the most common gender-neutral pronoun used by nonbinary or transgender people. Thus, using the singular “they” as a generic third-person singular pronoun is advised to avoid making assumptions about an individual’s gender.

 


Do not use “he” or “she” as generic third-person singular pronouns by themselves. Only use combination forms such as “he or she” and “she or he” if you are certain that these pronouns correspond to the individuals being described.

Simply using “he” or “she” may have unintentional implications. When pronouns are used in a way that is not mindful of their meaning, such as when the pronoun “he” is used to referring to all people, when a gendered pronoun is used primarily to define roles by sex (e.g., “the nurse… she”), or when “he” and “she” are alternated as if these terms are generic, sexist bias can arise. Even when the pronoun is intended to be general, pronouns linked with a specific gender have been demonstrated to cause readers to think of individuals of that gender, which can be a problem because it can lead to unequal treatment of different genders.

 


Do not use combination forms, such as “(s)he” and “s/he.”

Avoid using phrases like “he or she,” “she or he,” “he/she,” and “(s)he” as replacements for the singular “they” as they imply an entirely binary nature of gender and exclude those who do not use these pronouns. These forms can sometimes appear uncomfortable and obtrusive, particularly when used repeatedly. However, if everyone referred to by the pronouns uses these terms, the combinations “he or she” or “she or he” can be used sparingly, but not the combinations with slashes or parentheses.

Now, here are some forms of “they” as recommended by APA.

Form

Example

They

Kyle is a nonbinary individual. They are planning to conduct training related to SOGIE.

Them

Every team member got an allowance allocated to them.

Their

Each child played with their parent.

Theirs

The pair of white sneakers is theirs.

Themselves (or themself)

A private person usually keeps to themselves [or themself].

 Now, here are some pointers to help you use the correct forms.

  • Use a plural verb form with the singular pronoun “they” (i.e., write “they are” not “they is”).
  • Use a singular verb form with a singular noun (i.e., write “Kyle is” or “a person is,” not “Kyle are” or “a person are”).
  • The reflexive singular pronouns “themselves” and “themself” are both considered acceptable; however, the use of “themselves” is currently more common.

 Meanwhile, MLA notes two uses of the singular “they,” generic and specific.

  • Specific: Always follow the personal pronoun of individuals they write about. Thus, if a person’s pronoun is “they,” it should be properly used in the sentence.
    • Example: Kim is working on their monthly presentation.
  • Generic: Similar to APA, the singular “they” can be used as a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to an individual whose gender is unidentified or irrelevant to the context of the usage. This application allows writers to omit gendered pronouns from a sentence.
    • Original: Every employee must file his or her leaves accordingly.
    • Revised: Each employee must file their leaves accordingly.

Overall, the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun is becoming more and more accepted in academic writing because of the increasing visibility of queer and transgender people in society, as well as a general shift in attitudes toward issues of gender and sexuality. While some holdouts still prefer to stick with traditional gendered pronouns, it seems clear that the tide is turning in favor of using “they” as a way to be inclusive of everyone. If you are still uncertain about these new rules, let Journal Lab help you develop your study to become bias-free and more inclusive.