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Ask Dr. Editor

The politics of pronouns

The singular “they” and your power to choose as an academic writer.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | AUG 08 2019

Question:

I’m wondering about your approach to gendered pronouns. I usually use “she” and “her” to refer to (say) a hypothetical reader; however, on multiple occasions I’ve had an editor change this to “he or she” or “his or her.” If defaulting to “he” now feels gratingly tone-deaf, is defaulting to “she” a healthy correction or (as some editors seem to think) an overcompensation? Should we alternate examples with male and female pronouns? Just go with singular “they”? Something else?

 

– from Veronica Rose Alfano.

Dr. Editor’s response:

There’s nothing wrong with the singular “they.” English lacks a good gender-neutral or gender-unknown pronoun, with “it” sounding too impersonal, and “one” too stuffy and faux-regal. “They” away!

I understand the impulse behind your editor’s attempted correction. Most likely, they changed your phrasing in an attempt to avoid confusion, out of concern that some readers may think that “she” might refer to some woman described earlier in the text. Such a concern didn’t hold when “he” was the pronoun of choice — yet “she” doesn’t carry the same seeming neutrality that “he” used to, back when male was the default and anything else seemed alternative or abnormal.

To put it another way: in the second sentence in the paragraph above, had I written, “she changed your phrasing,” some readers may have suspected that I think all editors are female; if I had written “he changed your phrasing,” you and many others would accuse me of being “gratingly tone-deaf” to the norms of academic writing, which no longer assume the scholar or their audience to be male by default. So using either “he” or “she” alone isn’t the answer here.

Why we “they”

“They” is a more-than-adequate substitute for instances in which you don’t know the gender of a person who figures in your writing.

Why not “he or she”? Or “s/he”? Or, why don’t I suggest alternating between examples that feature male and then female pronouns? For the final of these options, inconsistency in pronoun use can create confusion — your reader may be mistakenly believe, for example, that the gender matters in your examples, or that there are differences between Hypothetical Person A, “she,” and Hypothetical Person B, “he.” So alternating is out. What about the first two options?

There are, of course, many people who are left out of “he or she” and “s/he” constructions. If you are a scholar of Cree, Inuit, or Kanienʼkehá꞉ka people or cultural productions, your “he or she” will leave out any readers who may be aayahkwew, sipiniq, or onón:wat respectively. Even if you aren’t a scholar of Indigenous studies, you may still have readers who are kathoey or fa’afafine or kinnar or māhū or genderqueer or at some other place on or beyond the gender spectrum. If you mean to refer to anybody, then ensure that you’re using the gender pronoun that encompasses to everybody: the singular “they.”

The “they” precedent

It’s not difficult to search online for instances of the singular “they” being used in historical contexts. A 2016 article from The Guardian cites 75 instances of the singular “they” in Pride and Prejudice. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a Middle English singular “they” from William and the Werewolf: “‘Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh” — and because I don’t understand 14th century English, I’m happy to trust the OED’s assurance that the example is relevant. If any number of online sources are to be believed, the singular “they” can also be found in works by many eminent dead people: Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Ruskin, Shakespeare, Thackeray, and on and on.

But I’m not persuaded that we need these historical precedents. Why do we need appeal to an earlier usage for the singular “they” to be appropriate in our era?

We use all kinds of words in ways that don’t have historical precedents — and not only when describing people. We don’t have to harken back to Austen to know that “key” is a great word to describe the little metal thing that I insert into the USB port in my computer. (And don’t get me started on “port” and “computer,” both of which were used differently before the digital revolution.)

Languages are not fixed things; we have the ability to adapt old words to fit new purposes. “They” would be a great choice as a singular pronoun even if there weren’t lots of dead people who used it that way hundreds of years ago.

Your authorial voice has power

When you submit to an academic journal, you have power over the text that is published under your name. Sure, you may need to conform to a particular citation format, and house style may dictate whether you get to capitalize “modernism” or hyphenate “well-being,” but for language that has political implications, you can and should make a case for your preferred word or formatting.

“We have a house style, but we also have real conversations with authors when their writing does not follow our style,” says Dr. Laura Moss, professor of English at the University of British Columbia, and editor of the journal Canadian Literature. Dr. Moss especially appreciates hearing about word or format choices that may have important political implications or historical nuances: “We keep learning from these and so approximately once a year we update our house style manual.”

Similarly, Dr. Emmanuel Hogg, managing editor of Social History and president of the Canadian Association of Learned Journals, says that it is “rather common [at Social History] to permit authors to insist on certain spellings as a matter of argument.” His publication doesn’t want “authors to feel as though they need to simply follow the rules, especially if they feel the rules do not reflect what they want to say or argue.”

In sum, dear letter-writer, while I’ve encouraged you to use “they,” if you wish to persist with “she,” tell your journal’s editor that your pronoun choice is both intentional and political, and then justify your decision. Editors — myself, and my perspective in this column, included — are making suggestions that we believe will improve your text, but the ultimate authority over a piece being published rests with its author. Consider your editor’s advice, but then make the choice that best suits your voice and your argument.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to Ask Dr. Editor at shortishard@gmail.com or on Twitter @lertitia.
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  1. Veronica / August 9, 2019 at 00:34

    This is wise advice — thank you! I think I will indeed do more to incorporate singular “they”; if there are contexts in which “they” creates confusion (when there are multiple antecedents to which it could refer, e.g.), I will probably still opt for “she.” Given the longstanding convention that “he” need not refer to some specific male person, I think it is healthy to reinforce the idea that an unspecified individual can also be “she.”

  2. Dominick Grace / August 14, 2019 at 13:29

    I’d like to highlight the final paragraph here, as I think all too often authors don’t recognize that editorial changes need not be accepted automatically. As a scholarly writer, I always take them seriously but will sometimes query an editor’s advice (I did so just this morning, in fact). As an editor, I try to make sure authors know that, while I wouldn’t make a suggestion if I didn’t think it was valid, I am always open to discussion, and that I don’t expect changes I have proposed simply to be rubber-stamped. It’s always a negotiation, and it never hurts to remind people of that. Thanks for doing so.

  3. Steve / August 14, 2019 at 14:40

    If “they” is used as a singular pronoun, does the verb agree with its singularity? For example, which of these versions would be correct?
    “My article was praised by the blind reviewer. They was impressed by the argument.”
    “My article was praised by the blind reviewer. They were impressed by the argument.”

  4. Reuben Kaufman / August 14, 2019 at 21:08

    Great point, Steve, about “they was” vs “they were”. What does Dr. Editor say?

    I like the modern view that no longer retains the old concept of “grammatical error”, but replaces it with something like “non-standard construction”. The only important thing is that the meaning be unambiguous. So, as much as I tend to grumble when I read: such-and-such “is comprised of” something or other (rather than “comprises”), the meaning is clear, so I reluctantly just move on with my life! So in this spirit, “I ain’t done that” should not be denigrated as a “grammatical error”.

    I also understand why, in modern times, it is best to refrain from using “he” as a generic pronoun. But to me, “they” simply sounds wrong as a singular generic pronoun in spite of there being historical precedents. As stated in the article, “they” can often be ambiguous. So why isn’t there a call-out for people to simply invent a gender-neutral pronoun, put it out there, and see whether it eventually catches on?? Isn’t that the most sensible solution? “OK go ahead, Reuben, invent something”, I imagine I hear you say. Well, I’m just a simple scientist, not a linguist, but how about “heesh”?? It may lack style, but at least it’s not ambiguous! But there are lots of possibilities, and I think they would be much better than “they” … Yuck!!

  5. Melissa Belvadi / August 15, 2019 at 09:21

    Preview information about the upcoming (October) release of the 7th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (otherwise known as the APA style manual) suggests that they are going to officially recommend the singular “they”. That imprimatur could change a lot of negative opinions on this matter.