What to do about gender with an unspecified subject? In the past, the consensus was to always use “he” and readers were supposed to understand that the subject might be female. As you know, that’s no longer accepted. The culture of formal academic writing hasn’t settled on a widely supported solution yet, which creates a pervasive problem for the student writer.
Informally, using “they/their” as the neutral singular is becoming a common practice. For example, if a Facebook friend hasn’t specified a gender, Facebook used to exhort you to “write on their timeline” for “their birthday.” I hear this more and more in spoken language as well. For example, most people who hear this sentence spoken wouldn’t note a glaring problem: “A doctor who makes a mistake is often too scared to admit their slip-up.” However, in an academic paper, that sentence would be considered a pronoun-antecedent error because “doctor” is singular and “their” is still considered plural. Most of your professors still don’t accept they/their as a gender-neutral singular possessive. Hopefully in coming years, academic writing will come to accept this perfectly reasonable solution to the gendered language problem, but we’re not there yet.
My first semester in college, it was my standard practice to rotate back and forth between the male and female pronouns. I did not want to appear sexist and was unsure how to avoid doing so. Referring to the same hypothetical person in one of my papers I wrote, “When one is confronted by new information that does not fit tidily onto her personal map…” Later in the paragraph I referred to the same individual by saying, “This new information demands that he forsake the world of the Cave in which he had been raised.” Obviously, in retrospect, that was confusing and certainly not the best option. But it illustrates the point that this can be a challenging dilemma. Thankfully for you, three more appropriate solutions are provided in this chapter.
So what to do? Here are three possible solutions.
- Choose plurals when possible. For example, “Doctors who make mistakes are often too scared to admit their slip-ups.”
- Write “he or she” or “his or her” if it’s not too repetitive. You don’t want to have more than two or three such “ors” in a paragraph, but a couple wouldn’t be tedious for the reader. For example, one might write, “A doctor who makes a mistake is often too scared to admit his or her slip-up. He or she might be forbidden from doing so by hospital attorneys.”
- Consider whether a real-life example is better than a hypothetical subject. Long passages about hypothetical people and situations often lack argumentative force. If you’re writing a paper about medical errors, you might do better to replace hypothetical claims like the above example with real-life examples of physicians who have made mistakes but were reluctant or forbidden to acknowledge them. Better yet, discuss the results of studies of medical errors and their outcomes. In addition to solving the gendered language problem, real examples are more persuasive.
Remember, it’s about precision and respect. Whatever you do, don’t just write “he” for doctors, attorneys, and construction workers and “she” for nurses, social workers, and flight attendants. You also shouldn’t just write “he” or “his” for everything, expecting your readers to mentally fill in the “or she” and “or her” themselves. Doing so seems lazy, if not actively sexist. Showing respect through precise language about gender makes you seem much more credible.
This chapter does not (and could not) provide a complete run-down of formal English language usage. You would do well to bookmark a couple good reference sources to consult when questions arise. If your writing usually has a lot of errors in it, don’t despair. Identify one or two practices to master and then learn them, using the feedback from your instructors as a guide. You can’t become a flawless writer overnight (and no one writes flawlessly all the time). But over the course of a few semesters, you can certainly produce more precise text that presents your ideas in their best light.