Welcome to the Active Voice Blog!

Active Voice BlogWelcome to the Active Voice Blog, the official blog of the Wake Forest University Writing Center. You can find all the information you need about the Center around our main site, but this space is reserved for students, faculty, and staff to share perspectives on writing practices and processes. We hope you’ll find something here that speaks to you!

The case of (and for) they

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.

Using Ctrl-F

Guest post from Writing Center tutor Thomas.

It’s often said that great papers aren’t written, they’re re-written.  To be fair, after finishing a draft, it can be a daunting task to revisit your writing.  Fortunately, every computer comes equipped with an valuable tool that can kick-start the process:  the keyboard shortcut Ctrl-F.  This feature enables us to look for virtually anything that we know to be a pattern of concern in our writing.  Here are a few examples:

Repeated or Problem Words

  • Perhaps your analysis often hinges on “go-to” words such as displays, reveals, pertains, connects, shows, or adjectives like interesting, important, Rather than changing these arbitrarily, Ctrl-F allows us to see all the places we’ve used a given word and determine where they can be used most effectively.
  • Perhaps a professor or peer has questioned your use of a particular word… Perhaps you have a suspicion that you rely on a given word without truly knowing it is the best word to use…
  • Ctrl-F, which also features a “Replace” option, enables a quick opportunity for rephraising—especially considering Word’s built-in Thesaurus tool, located under the Review tab on the taskbar next to the Spell Check button.

Grammatical Quandaries

  • The same tool can be beneficial in discerning how frequently you use certain punctuation symbols. If you tend to forget to eliminate contractions in your academic writing, simply enter an apostrophe in the search bar of the Ctrl-F
  • Perhaps you conflate dashes, semicolons and colons while writing? You can utilize Ctrl-F to review your usage of them as well.

Analytical Fallacies

  • If you are analyzing texts in your writing, Ctrl-F can be a useful tool to locate references to the text’s author, which might have been substituted in the heat of composition for “the speaker” (in the case of poetry) or “the narrator” (in the case of fiction).
  • If you are responding to or incorporating other authors or critics, researchers or sources in your writing, searching for their names can helpin ensuring that your voice doesn’t merge with the voices of those whom you are quoting.

In all of these cases, when we have finished a paper’s initial draft(s), using Ctrl-F as a starting point to proofread is less intimidating than beginning at the first sentence of the paper and working your way through the bulk of the composition piece by piece.  When struggling to keep proofreading from being delayed or rushed or haphazard, Ctrl-F can become the first step in changing that negative cycle.

Word of the Week

anfractuous, adj.

Winding, sinuous, involved; roundabout, circuitous; spiral.”

“It was clear from her anfractuous talking that she did not do the reading for her class.”

“anfractuous, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 31 May 2017.

Word of the Week

argle-bargle, n.

“Disputatious argument, bandying of words, wrangling.”

“His answer to the question was so confusing, the hiring committee thought it was pure argle-bargle and didn’t give him the job.”

“ˈargle-ˈbargle, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 31 May 2017.

Tuesday Tip: Get in a Group

The Writing Center is starting to put together some writing groups for graduate students writing theses and dissertations as well as students writing undergraduate theses. We are currently recruiting participants as well as group facilitators.

So what are these writing groups all about? Well, we want to provide students working on long-form writing projects with a support network. Groups will each have a trained facilitator that will help the group stay focused, stay positive, and stay productive. We will provide you with a space for your group to write. We will even give you snacks and coffee!

Want to join a group (and maybe even facilitate)? Sign up here:



Word of the Week

disputatious, adj.

“Characterized by, or given to, disputation; inclined to dispute or wrangle; contentious.”

“Everyone knew that the professor was disputatious so they never argued over their grades.”

“disputatious, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 31 May 2017.

Tuesday Tip: Setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals

Image of the word "impossible", with a pencil crossing out "im."










Finishing a paper can sometimes seem impossible, but it doesn’t have to be! Break down your task into manageable pieces by setting some S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Specific: State exactly what it is you need to accomplish. Be as explicit as possible, including the requirements and details of the task. Maybe it’s completing a final draft of your history paper, or maybe it’s brainstorming thoughts for your thesis statement.

Measurable: Decide how you will know when you have met your goal. Maybe it’s when you turn the paper in, or maybe it’s after you’ve written the first 300 words.

Actionable: Determine what steps you will take in working towards the completion of your goal. Maybe it’s by spending all Saturday at the library revising your essay, or maybe it’s by spending an hour each day doing research for your proposal.

Relevant: Focus on how the steps you’re taking help move you toward your goal, instead of getting off track. Maybe it’s finding three primary sources to read tomorrow or maybe it’s deciding that color coding your notes isn’t a very effective strategy.

Time-bound: Set a deadline so that you commit the correct amount of time and effort to meeting your goal. Maybe it’s finishing your first draft by your writing center appointment, or maybe it’s finishing your outline before the 10pm Game of Thrones watch party.