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In recent years, we have seen the emergence of numerous pronouns beyond the regular he/him and she/her, such as they/them, Xe/xem, Ver/vir, and many more. However, the issue arises when browsing individual professors' websites, as I have never come across any professor explicitly stating their preferred pronouns. In such cases, I assumed they prefer the regular he/him and she/her pronouns. Now, while composing my Statement of Purpose (SOP), I am faced with the dilemma of whether to use assumed pronouns, taking the risk, or to simply avoid pronouns altogether by repeatedly using their names (potentially including their last names, which is another controversial issue). In short, is using his or her pronouns to professors wrong or disrespectful in SOP?

For example, I am confused between the following two:

"Dr. John Doe........................... His work on......"

"Dr. John Doe........................... Dr. Doe's work on......"

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    – cag51
    Dec 9, 2023 at 4:28

7 Answers 7

88

What I have learned from conversations with people who use less common pronouns (typically they/them) is that there is no expectation for perfection or magical divination of pronouns. There's no penalty for making a mistake, only a hope that you'll do your best when made aware or corrected and not argue or dispute.

Occasionally, you may hear that it is not acceptable to make any mistakes, that you must avoid being tricked into using the wrong pronoun and revealing yourself to be bigoted and deserving of permanent shame and punishment. In my experience, this message does not come from people who are actually interested in respecting people's pronouns. Rather, it comes from people who want you to believe that describing people as they want to be described puts an impossible burden on other people, or who want you to think that a trans or nonbinary person is a scary threat.

I think it's appropriate due diligence to notice on someone's academic profile online whether they specify particular pronouns, and if so, use those whenever you use a pronoun to describe them. If they aren't stated, though, you don't need to investigate any further to make sure you get it right, just try to use the best information you have at the time.

That said, you can never go wrong with "Dr. Doe's work". "Their work" is also fine both as a way of describing an individual whose pronouns you don't know and also in a plural sense that it's rare (at least in my field) for academic work to be a solo project; "their work" can acknowledge that papers published by Dr. Doe are a group effort and when you describe work by Dr. Doe you really refer to work by Dr. Doe and their lab/collaborators. You could even do this explicitly by referring to work in Dr. Doe's lab (if appropriate to your field) rather than only by Dr. Doe.

I would not recommend using other newly created pronouns (Xe/xem, Ver/vir) unless someone specifically requests them to be used; these are specific pronouns and unlike singular "they" do not have the same role in describing someone whose gender you are unaware of.

I think if you are referring to the same professor by name more than once or twice in your statement of purpose you are probably over-referring to that one individual, regardless of how you refer to them.

Some old guides recommend using the masculine gender in English as a generic gender or flipping between masculine and feminine; I would definitely avoid assuming masculine gender for everyone because of the stubborn implication that professors must be men. I would also avoid simply alternating genders when you're talking about actual people; it's appropriate for example/hypothetical cases where gender should be unimportant (e.g., labeling characters 'Alice' and 'Bob' in describing an imaginary interpersonal interaction), but is not a suitable strategy for a specific person whose gender is unknown to the writer/speaker: it's better to use singular 'they' in that circumstance.

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    – cag51
    Dec 9, 2023 at 4:30
17

I think few people would be offended unless you have somehow been told what they prefer. Once told, it is polite to conform to their desires. But make the statements easy to read, rather than awkward.

I'd avoid the constructed pronouns until someone says that is their preference.

But either of your examples seems fine in an SoP.

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    Good answer. I'd prefer the first, as I find the use of the doctoral title slightly akward (especially for professors)
    – user111388
    Dec 4, 2023 at 17:59
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    @user111388, if they were mentioned several times, I might, myself, prefer to alternate the usages just for variety. (Notice what I did there?)
    – Buffy
    Dec 4, 2023 at 18:02
  • I'd prefer "Firstname Lastname" or Prof. Lastname :)
    – user111388
    Dec 4, 2023 at 20:26
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    @Buffy No, I didn't notice what you did in your comment. What did you do? I only see one reference to each subject ("they" for the other person, "I" for you), unless you count the superfluous "myself" there as the alternation?
    – justhalf
    Dec 5, 2023 at 2:57
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It is generally expected that you respect a person's indicated preferred pronouns when referring to them. Check the professor's homepage and department directory listing to see if they have indicated a preference.

If they don't have publicly listed preferred pronouns, assume the default based on obvious indicators (name, webpage photo etc). If the obvious indicators still leave you in doubt, using a gender-neutral pronoun may be a good idea.

The above rules seem reasonable to me. But it's worth keeping in mind that you cannot completely eliminate the risk of offending someone. Some people want us to live in a society where we are never allowed to assume anything about a person's gender until it is explicitly stated. Assuming a default pronoun can offend such people. Other people will be offended at any use of a gender-neutral pronoun, or even if they perceive that you are deliberately avoiding the use of pronouns out of a desire to avoid offending people.

Since it's impossible to guarantee that you will not offend anyone, my way to deal with this sort of dilemma is to not set that as my goal, but merely to do my best to treat everyone with respect, assume good faith on the part of other people as my default assumption, and hope that they will accord the same to me.

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    FWIW, my experience mirrors that described in Bryan’s answer: I’ve yet to come across anyone who uses non-obvious pronouns who expected others to just magically know this and not make pronominal assumptions. The only people I’ve ever seen make comments to that effect were ones who were in fact against their usage at all – the same people who might be offended at the use of gender-neutral pronouns (and who, of course, didn’t actually believe in their own comment, just made it to prove their point). Dec 5, 2023 at 4:09
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    I think "it is generally expected" is an overstatement when there are plenty of people who strongly disagree with the whole idea.
    – toby544
    Dec 5, 2023 at 10:18
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    @toby544 well, there are many people who expect it. Make of that what you will.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 5, 2023 at 10:40
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    @AzorAhai-him- When I said "the whole idea" I meant the idea that each person can freely choose their pronouns and everyone else then has an obligation to use them. Plenty of people disagree with that. See Ben's answer and the comments under it.
    – toby544
    Dec 6, 2023 at 8:50
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    @toby544 in the context of OP's question about a PhD application, is it really relevant that plenty of people disagree? I mean sure, OP can decide to intentionally ignore the preferred pronouns of a professor in the program he is applying to in order to be true to his beliefs (if they are of that type), but is this really a course of action you'd recommend a PhD applicant to follow? There is a time and a place to fight for your beliefs, but a PhD statement of purpose is probably not that time or place. (Nor is a discussion on academia.se about a pragmatic question such a time or place, IMO).
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 6, 2023 at 21:50
4

Pragmatically:

  1. If the professor has indicated their pronouns, use them.
  2. If the professor has not indicated their pronouns, and you can make a reasonable guess at their gender from photos or well-known names, use that guess.
  3. If you are unable to make such a guess with any confidence (eg unfamiliar names from another country, or because you have reason to think there's a higher than normal chance that they are trans or non-binary), use they/them.
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Most professors have at least a staff webpage, which gives them a medium through which to communicate preferred pronouns if they wish to do so. Others have public social media profiles, email signature blocks, etc., through which they can also communicate preferred pronouns. If they have not communicated a preference on a staff webpage, personal webpage, or a public social media profile, then it is likely that they are comfortable with the default pronouns. (In any case, in the event of criticism you can validly plead having checked.)

The real conflict here arises when a speaker knows the preferred pronouns of a listener but does not wish to use these, most likely due to a belief that such pronouns misrepresent reality and that adherence to them constitutes a social coercion to lie about reality and/or implicitly support a false theory of gender. The latter situation exists for many reasonable people (described incorrectly in the other answer here in unflattering terms) and it is the more likely situation that would lead to conflict and accusations of disrespect (and now cue the comments below confirming the inevitability of such accusations).

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    – cag51
    Dec 5, 2023 at 16:29
0

If the professor has not provided a preferred pronoun, I would suggest using the appropriate he/his and she/her pronouns, alternating with last names.

Example: "Hayes [1] suggested ... His work exemplified ..."

Using the supposedly gender-neutral "they" for a single person, as in "Their work exemplifies ..." runs the risk of alienating conservative academics who may oppose this practice. And they may be unfortunately less favorable to your application, either consciously or subconsciously.

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    You seem to be saying that the writer of the statement of purpose should arbitrarily assign the pronouns "he" and "she" to professors with no regard for those professors' genders; am I understanding you correctly? If so, I think most readers will find that extremely confusing, and potentially very insulting as well. Dec 5, 2023 at 20:18
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    @TannerSwett, no, I suggest using He/She based on the sex of the person as is known either from their name or their photo, unless their preferred pronouns is stated on their website. I have clarified this now.
    – Dilworth
    Dec 6, 2023 at 0:53
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    @wizzwizz4, that's not my experience at all. I believe the culture war in US campuses is still on going. I just want to warn the OP.
    – Dilworth
    Dec 6, 2023 at 0:54
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    @Dilworth "as is known from their name or photo"... isn't that bad practice following your own answer in fact Dec 6, 2023 at 9:33
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    @AlexRobinson This „their“ is used for an unknown person. Normal English use of „their“ for centuries. Has nothing to do with the personal pronouns of specific persons where the (preferred) gender is known or at least assumed.
    – BlackJack
    Dec 6, 2023 at 17:37
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I don't have the experience specifically with pronouns, but it's a common situation when someone has gotten married over the summer, changed their last name and it takes some time even when the website has been updated for everyone to use the new one. In cases of paperwork you'd just be requested to update and send it in again, in case of SOP I don't think you would be requested to update the SOP. In short it's not considered rude (in this case).

But I suppose you known your situation better - what's the likelihood they might have special pronouns or that they have changed the pronouns and that they might be upset if used incorrectly. In that case I'd suggest to contact the department's administration with request along the lines of "Hi, I'm writing SOP for so and so and I want to confirm if all the details I have are up to date" and list their name, education and throw in your best guess of the pronouns. I've heard of admins getting lectured for the order of CC'd staff in an email (expectation was to order by importance), so they usually are first to learn these things. Moreover, in my experience, they're quite kind regarding difficult profs and will give you a heads up if suddenly something changes so you can prepare ahead of time if last minute there was a change.

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    I don't think this is comparable. The OP fears (correctly or incorrectly) that a wrong gender may hurt a person's feeling or that the person even does "revenge" in some sort. This is hardly the same with a new name because of marriage: Only very few people would feel hurt by their old name.
    – user111388
    Dec 6, 2023 at 15:47
  • @user111388 Did you read the second part of the answer?
    – vspmis
    Dec 7, 2023 at 6:07
  • Yes, I did read it.
    – user111388
    Dec 10, 2023 at 18:47
  • @user111388 So do you have any input on the specific advice or you're only going to discuss the part I gave for context to be transparent about my lack of experience with pronouns? I don't see how being transparent about lack of experience makes my answer worse, because if the suggestion to contact admins is incorrect I would gladly update or even delete this answer - but no one is saying what is wrong with this suggestion.
    – vspmis
    Dec 11, 2023 at 7:51
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    Hello, first, in your answer, you talked about "someone who has gotten married", not someone who was abused and got divorced. This was my comment about. And I still say it's incomparable - people feel like a different gender, but I have never heard that someone said "I never felt like my previous name before marriage/divorce was correct" but rather "now, I feel my name is not right anymore". Maybe this happens rarely, but it is not comparable to the feeling "I have a different gender than it seems" which seems to be standard.
    – user111388
    Dec 11, 2023 at 13:21

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