54

We are a bunch of people writing a collection of papers. Two of the writers are from Iran (where the common language does not have gendered pronouns), and they have expressed to me some concern with regards to the lack of gender-neutrality in our papers.

As you may know, English writing often exhibits some degrees of gender-bias, mainly the use of "he" to refer to a person with an unspecified gender. These co-authors would like to avoid such bias if they are to put their names on the papers.

They've told me this as we are close, but haven't talked to anybody else (there are 3 others). Is this a reasonable request? What's the correct thing to do here? I could just ask the others, but what do I do if somebody gets offended by the request and refuses? I doubt it'll happen, but in the current public discourse where "political correctness" is the new pejorative buzz word, I am not so sure.

122

This is an entirely reasonable request and you should honour it. It is very easy to write English in a manner that avoids the unfortunate use of 'he' as a placeholder for either gender, and doing so avoids needless sexism in your writing.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Feb 1 '17 at 14:06
99

Certainly there are many people in the world who prefer to avoid using gendered pronouns for persons of unspecified gender, so your co-authors' view is not particularly unusual. But there are others who see no problem with this. There are plausible arguments on both sides, and this site is not the place to rehash them. You can see some of the debate on English.SE.

Like any request from a co-author, you and the other authors should consider it. If you disagree, deal with it like any set of reasonable adults who disagree: discuss the issue and share your reasons. If necessary, you could agree to settle it by a vote.

If all else fails, some authors could withdraw from the paper; the remaining authors might then need to rewrite their contributions. I think it's unlikely to come to that.

  • 42
    I would ask that people not use this comment thread to debate which style is "correct". – Nate Eldredge Jan 28 '17 at 4:03
  • Tha question at English.se is good starting point. It's worth following some of the links in the first comment and looking at some of the tags attached to the question. It would be trciky if an author who had made major contributions (e.g. to an experiment) reached the stage of wanting to withdraw over something like this. – Chris H Jan 30 '17 at 9:36
  • 7
    "you could agree to settle it by a vote" -- or quite likely you couldn't agree that. Deciding the constitution after you already know everyone's opinions doesn't often work, since the minority is under no obligation to consent to a simple majority vote. But it's worth suggesting, I suppose. – Steve Jessop Jan 30 '17 at 16:00
47

Two of the writers are from Iran ... As you may know, English writing often exhibits some degrees of gender-bias, mainly the use of "he" to refer to a person with an unspecified gender.

I think this hits the nail on the head in terms of one reason why, possibly, to make the change. As comments point out (or rather, "according to the comments", as I'm not an expert in Farsi/Persian) there aren't gendered pronouns in Persian and so, to them, it presumably feels odd on a very basic level.

Is this a reasonable request?

It's presumably a piece of work that you have all put a lot of time and work into and, accordingly, have some degree of attachment to. Not to mention that it's going out into the world with your names on it. In that context, I think that any request is reasonable -- that doesn't necessarily mean that any and all changes should (or can) be made, but it's totally fair for people to ask.

They've told me this as we are close, but haven't talked to anybody else (there are 3 others).

That does, unfortunately, put you in a difficult position, as the go-between. You have my sympathy, for what it's worth.

What's the correct thing to do here? I could just ask the others, but what do I do if somebody gets offended by the request and refuses?

I would suggest that you could talk to your fellow English-as-a-first-language (I assume) co-authors about this as an abstract topic, if that would help? Ask them their feelings about it, without bringing up th specific request. I acknowledge, though, that it could, potentially, do more harm than good if it gets them set in their ways. Alternatively, explaining that it feels "odd" to your other co-authors as their first language does not use gendered pronouns might help to avoid the "political corectness" concerns that you have.

More practically, if it comes down to a (polite) debate: some people have been taught that the word "they" can not be used in the singular, but if it helps you to argue the point, Shakespeare seemed to be perfectly happy with it:

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3

or

Now leaden slumber with life's strength doth fight;
And every one to rest themselves betake,
Save thieves, and cares, and troubled minds, that wake.

The Rape of Lucree (Credit to Language Log)

I will confess that I am something of an evangelist for "they" as a singular pronoun, and have argued succesfully for its use in documents. I have, I think, only ever received one objection, and that was more along the lines of the change being unecessary, or a preference for using the composite (and, in my opinion, stylistically clumsy) "he or she". However, your mileage, of course, may vary.

  • 5
    +1 I stated my own arguments in favor of "they" etc. in stackoverflow meta – Patricia Shanahan Jan 28 '17 at 14:41
  • 5
    It was being used even before then. The King James Bible has some uses of it. Singular they is in a renaissance, and those in their twenties will read it perfectly naturally and probably a good bit of those of us in our thirties do too. It's not the only solution, of course, but it's the simplest, IMO. – guifa Jan 28 '17 at 15:25
  • 5
    @guifa "even before" what? I'm confused. The Comedy of Errors was published several years before the start of work on the King James Bible. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 28 '17 at 20:47
  • 4
    @PatriciaShanahan oops, I'm bad with dates. But it also appeared in Chaucer, which is definitely pre-Shakespeare unless I'm really really bad with dates haha – guifa Jan 28 '17 at 21:26
  • 3
    I agree “he or she” is clumsy, and it’s also wrong: not everyone uses “he” or “she” pronouns. “They” all the way! – Lynn Jan 29 '17 at 22:05
33

While in some fields this can be a matter of personal preference, as stated in the other answers, keep in mind that in some fields (and journals), avoiding gender bias in your writing may be a stylistic requirement.

See, for example, the author submission guidelines in the following journal (under 'Statement on the Use of Gendered Language'): http://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/hub/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1548-1352/about/author-guidelines.html

And the APA 'Guidelines for Unbiased Language': http://supp.apa.org/style/pubman-ch03.00.pdf

  • 6
    This is an important point: the journal's style guide made take this decision out of your hands. – Jack Aidley Jan 28 '17 at 18:23
2

There's no real reason why you shouldn't comply and try to convince your other co-authors to comply as well.

Allow me to offer you some (both good and bad) alternatives to gendered pronouns:

Using "(s)he" or "he/she": This doesn't exactly fit the bill of an ungendered pronoun and it's annoying to both read and write.

Using an "alternative" pronoun (such as "xer" or what not): I highly recommend AGAINST this. It's weird and is most likely to be met with resistance if you suggest it.

Using "they/them/their": Using plural to refer to someone without specifying gender is a very common and accepted.

Using "the [noun]": Another common way to do this is to refer to the person with a noun such as "the reader" or whatever noun applies to the person. If done too much though the text becomes needlessly extended and much more annoying.

I would recommend using "they" while mixing in "the [noun]" occasionally when you feel that it needs to be more specific who you're referring to. This could be when who you're referring to changes or if you feel like the reference has gone stale after many uses of "they". If who you're referring to never changes you could for example replace the first "they" in every paragraph with "the [noun]".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.