The case of (and for) they
Posted on: March 19, 2018
It’s becoming more common to encounter the third-person singular they online and in news reports. Other formulations gaining usage include s/he, he/she, and he or she—combinations all designed to avoid bias in reporting and binary conceptions of gender and sexuality.
However, the situation in academic writing is less clear. No consensus exists amongst the recommendations offered by the three major style guides. However, the American Psychological Association, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Modern Language Association do acknowledge contemporary scholars’ desire for gender-neutral pronouns.
Here is a brief overview of what each guide recommends:
- According to the APA Style Blog, the use of they as a singular pronoun is subject to the context of the writing. When referring to an individual who has expressed a preference for gender neutrality, or when the gender of a subject is not revealed, the APA acknowledges “the utility of gender-neutral pronouns.”
- However, in the context of most formal academic writing, the APA does not currently support using they in the case of referring to a singular subject. If avoiding bias is the priority for a writer, the APA recommends avoiding gendered pronouns altogether by rephrasing the sentence or relying on alternative terms such as one.
- Like the APA, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends avoidance of gendered pronouns when they are incorrectly applied or if they imply bias. He or she is the form cited as the best alternative. The Manual does also endorse the use of a particular subject’s preferred pronouns.
- However, the 17th edition of the Manual does not endorse using they as a substitute for he when used to refer to people in general. Like the APA, the Manual prefers that the problem be avoided through various strategies of restructuring or rephrasing.
- The 8th edition of the MLA Handbook of Style is perhaps closest in correspondence to the increasingly widespread use of they as a singular pronoun in that it does not specifically discourage the use.
- However, the MLA also refrains from endorsing they and other gender-neutral terms, ceding such decisions to the discretion of the writer.
While neglecting to endorse the usage of they explicitly, the MLA’s emphasis on the flexibility of language—rather than its conventional rules—is integral to the evolving state of its usage in the world. We might remember, too that there was a time that any use of a genderless pronoun—like any non-binary conception—would have been uniformly denied. That is happily no longer the case.