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I'm responding to an anonymous referee who made comments and suggestions on an article I wrote.

Since I don't know the gender, I thought of two possibilities:

  1. We agree with the referee on its comment...
  2. We agree with the referee on their comment...

Is either of these the proper way to refer to the referee? Or should I just write "he/she" "his/her" on every occasion?

41

The use of singular they, as in your second option,

  1. We agree with the referee on their comment...

is perfectly appropriate. You can also use some other alternatives, most notably he/she, as in e.g.

  1. We agree with the referee on his/her comment...

I would discourage you from using some of the more niche alternatives, such as Spivak pronouns, in correspondence that's this formal.

On the other hand, your first alternative (We agree with the referee on its comment...) should not be used under any circumstances. It is considered extremely rude by native English speakers, since it reduces the referee to the level of an inanimate thing. If you use it you can hope, at best, to come off as someone with a very poor command of the English language.

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  • Thanks EP. I had my reservations about using it as an example, but it was the only alternative to they I could think of. – Gabriel Oct 18 '16 at 14:08
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    "Agreeing with the referee on his/her/their comment" is exactly the same as "Agreeing with the referee's comment", which completely avoids the gender issue. – David Richerby Oct 18 '16 at 16:00
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    @DavidRicherby That's already addressed in other answers (and please keep in mind this comment by the OP). Or must every SE answer indicate every possible variant that can be used? – E.P. Oct 18 '16 at 16:01
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    +1 Thankfully the absurd restriction on singular they put about by grammar mavens has more or less lost its influence and so it is now unlikely that anyone will object to this construct. – Jack Aidley Oct 18 '16 at 16:31
  • @JackAidley - - yes, it's much more important to avoid a situation where one is may incorrectly believe you are rudely making assumptions about a person's gender than making people work hard to figure out what exactly you're talking about. – Scott Seidman Oct 18 '16 at 18:05
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Why not

We agree with the referee's comment.

(I gathered my answer from the question "Agree on" vs. "agree with" vs. "agree to" on English SE)

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  • It looks like I beat Scott by 14 seconds. – scaaahu Oct 18 '16 at 14:47
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    As I mentioned in one of my comments on the original question, I can probably avoid the use of any pronoun in this particular example. I am not sure I can avoid using it throughout the entire letter, hence why I need an alternative. – Gabriel Oct 18 '16 at 14:49
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    This is the most correct answer. One can virtually always write a scholarly paper (or a review of such or a response to the review) without the use of personal pronouns outside of direct quotations. An author can guide the reader through a convoluted argument or proof without referring to the reader as "you" or the author as "me" or "I" (however, many texts used the personal pronoun "we" in such discussions to mean the thinking that the author and the reader are doing together, the prohibition of this usage appears to now be an anachronism). – robert bristow-johnson Oct 18 '16 at 17:14
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    @Gabriel, actually in the posited situation, this happens to be the clearest use of language. I understand your point, but perhaps a less tortuous example would be helpful. – Scott Seidman Oct 18 '16 at 18:07
  • I agree that in this particular example this might be the best solution. As I said though, I am making a more general question, not just about this particular example. – Gabriel Oct 18 '16 at 19:03
5

In "unknown" gender situations, I use constructions like s/he and his/her.

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3

How about "We agree with the referee's comment." In general, less words are just better for conveying a message. If you must pick a genderless pronoun, "he" does not necessarily convey gender, and is perfectly acceptable in most cases. If you feel you must, the first use you could use s\he, his\her, or the like, to prove that you make no assumptions about the gender of the referee, and then use he or him for the rest, because it just sounds better.

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    I will not downvote this answer, since there is nothing wrong with it (and downvotes are to be used for BAD answers, not answers one disagrees with). But I disagree that using "he" is the best option. – Tom Church Oct 18 '16 at 15:03
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    I agree with Tom about the use of "he". I believe it does convey gender, and should not be used as a gender-neutral alternative. – Gabriel Oct 18 '16 at 15:06
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    Similar to this answer: I have recently seen "she" as the gender-neutral pronoun in academic contexts more and more often, especially in math contexts (your field is not mentioned but this is the one I have experience with). – Richard Rast Oct 18 '16 at 15:25
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    I'll pile on - "he" is only construed as a gender-neutral pronoun by males. For people that do care about gender neutrality, this shouldn't be used. Downvoting since the only correct part of this post is already available elsewhere without the wrong bits. – E.P. Oct 18 '16 at 15:38
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    I'll chime in. There is a long history of treating both 'he', 'him', 'man', 'her', and 'she' as gender neutral. Examples are wide. The poem "No Man is an Island" is not saying that women are isolationists. Another example is 'feminists'; they advocate for men's rights too. I've read technical reference books referring to the prospective reader as 'her'. – Lan Oct 18 '16 at 17:18

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