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Article by Wendy Lee Spaček, Library Assistant for the Arts & Humanities Department, and Research Assistant for the Learning Commons at Wells Library. She is currently earning her Master in Library Science degree and in 2019 earned her MFA in Poetry from IU. She specializes in English, poetry, and teaching and learning. Her secondary interests include gender & sexuality studies and library conservation
Style Guides on the Singular Pronoun “They” & Gender-Inclusive Academic Writing
Academic style guides agree: honoring and using a person’s correct personal pronoun is a matter of respect, and it's good style
All three major Academic Style Guides (APA, the Chicago Manual of Style, and MLA) agree that a person’s correct personal pronouns (they, he, she, etc.) should be respected and used at all times in formal and academic writing. It is not possible to infer a person’s pronouns just by looking at them. To determine the pronouns of someone you are writing about, refer to their biography, or if possible, ask them what personal pronouns they use. If their personal pronouns are unknown or cannot be determined, using singular “they” may be the solution if you are writing in APA or MLA. For those using Chicago, the guide recommends rewriting the text in a way that does not require using personal pronouns (5.256). Always take care in your writing to use the correct personal pronouns. Never assume a person’s pronouns when writing about them!
More about personal pronouns and how to use them
In English, personal pronouns are gendered. Historically, English offers only three personal pronouns: masculine (he), feminine (she), and the un-gendered “it” (which is widely seen as rude or disrespectful to use when referring to a person). These few personal pronouns do not adequately express the variety of gender expressions that have been present throughout history. Grammar is not static, but changes over time, adapting to, reflecting, and perpetuating biases and social constructs present in the culture. Many people have been excluded by this rigid and artificial binary representation of gender codified in the English language and have had to find or create alternatives to identify themselves in speech and writing.
Below is a chart that lists some of the most commonly used personal pronouns and gives examples for how to use them:
|Nominative (subject)||Objective (object)||Possessive determiner||Possessive pronoun||Reflexive|
|He||He laughed||I called him||His dog barks||That is his||He likes himself|
|She||She laughed||I called her||Her dog barks||That is hers||She like herself|
|They||They laughed||I called them||Their dog barks||That is theirs||They like themself|
|Per||Per laughed||I called per||Per dog barks||That is pers||Per likes perself|
Ze and Hir
|Ze laughed||I called hir||Hir dog barks||That is hirs||Ze likes hirself|
Academic Style Guides on the importance of achieving gender-neutral writing
Academic style guides agree on the importance of achieving gender-neutral writing, and the problem of using “he” as a universal pronoun. For a time, academic style guides suggested the use of “he or she” or alternating between “he” or “she” in writing. This construction is now acknowledged as being not only clunky and awkward, but exclusionary because to use “he or she” suggests a rigid gender binary, excluding all persons whose gender identities are outside of that binary. Luckily, singular “they,” in use since the 14th century in informal and spoken speech, has started to gain traction as a gender-inclusive pronoun to refer to a person of unknown gender in formal and academic writing. More on the history of singular “they” can be found at the Oxford English Dictionary’s website and Historians.org.
In 2021 Academic Style Guides are divided on the use of singular “they” as a gender-neutral unknown referent
Academic Style Guides adapt slowly to changes in grammar, and like grammar, are socially constructed texts that are constantly in flux. To understand Academic Style Guides’ current and past positions on singular “they” as a gender-neutral unknown referent, it is important to keep in mind that Academic Style Guides do not create grammatical rules. Rather, they establish formal guidelines that follow spoken and grammatical conventions which are set by informal writing and speech. Academic Style Guides are often slow to adopt conventions they might see as temporary. Despite the long history of singular “they” in this usage, which mirrors the grammatical evolution of singular “you,” some style guides have waffled on sanctioning its use.
As of 2021, all three major guides (APA, MLA, and Chicago) acknowledge the ubiquity of singular “they” for use with an unknown referent in informal writing and speech. However, only one of the three guides, the 7th Edition of APA’s Style Guide, fully endorses the use of singular “they” as “a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context of usage” (APA, 120). MLA, which leaves grammar largely up to the discretion of the author, neither endorses nor prohibits the use of singular “they” in this sense. As a result, it is acceptable in MLA Style. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) has a particularly complicated history with singular “they” as a gender-neutral unknown referent. In the 1993 edition, it endorsed “they/their” in this sense (Chicago, 13th Ed. 2.98). However, this was removed from subsequent editions. Though CMOS acknowledges the ubiquity of this usage, it continues to prohibit its use and instead recommends rewriting the sentence in some way that eliminates the need for a pronoun. For more on the history of singular “they” and the Chicago Manual of Style, take a look at this 2017 article written by Cai Fischietto on IU Libraries’ website.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association: The Official Guide to APA Style. Seventh edition, American Psychological Association, 2020.
MLA Handbook. Eighth edition, The Modern Language Association of America, 2016.
The Chicago Manual of Style. Seventeenth edition, The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
The Chicago Manual of Style. Thirteenth edition, The University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 76-77.
Further reading on gender-inclusive writing
Trans Journalists Association's Style Guide
Further reading on the singular pronoun “they”
Merriam-Webster's Words at Play blog on the evolution of singular "they"
Singular "they" is Merriam Webster's 2020 word of the year
Singular "they" is the American Dialect Society's Word of the Decade
IU Libraries 2016 article Academic Style Guides on the Singular Pronoun 'They' by Cai Fischietto
Style Guides on singular “they”
The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, 5.48
American Psychological Association (APA) Style Guide
Modern Language Association (MLA) Style Guide
2019 Guardian article about the development of gender-neutral writing around the world