Some authors use "her" whenever they employ a pronoun referring to a noun whose gender is immaterial to the discussion.

Is there any rule (university or journal or conference-specific) which dictates this? Is it good practice to stick to the same pronoun throughout a paper? Or is it better to get rid of the issue by using the gender-neutral 'one'?

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    Isn't it a question for english.stackexchange.com? Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 6:53
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    It has indeed come up on english.SE, and is off-topic here. Universities typically include this sort of thing in their Style Guide.
    – 410 gone
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 7:16
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    No, I do think this is something specific to the academia, rather than to English in general. The question clearly asks if this is university or journal or conference-specific, and this can't be answered by people at english.SE.
    – Bravo
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 7:35
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    The short answer is no. Most authors would ignore such a prescription if someone tried to impose it. (And I've never noticed that pattern among MIT authors; it must be a field-specific thing.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 12:44
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    @PiotrMigdal: If this were a question of what standard practice is in general written English, yes, it would be a question for English.SE. However, when it applies to academic writing, it becomes appropriate for Academia.SE.
    – aeismail
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 14:25

2 Answers 2


The reason for using "her" more frequently nowadays is to correct an ongoing imbalance: in general, for a long time, "his" has been used, even where a more neutral pronoun ("one") should have been used instead.

Grammatically, however, any of the recipes you suggest would be appropriate: it is only the matter of the particular taste of the author. I would recommend, though, that when using both "he" and "she," that you use one consistently throughout a particular usage. Don't write "she/her" in one sentence, and then "he/his" in the one after. A few paragraphs later won't be a problem, though.

The reason "one" is not nearly as popular is that it is somewhat awkward-sounding; too many "one" and "one's" in the same sentence makes it feel too stiff and impersonal. (It's a bit of a catch-22, I know, but that's the way it is!)

One other option that you did not mention, though, may be the simplest route of all: simply use collective plural pronouns: use "they," "their," and "theirs." It gives you the benefit of including everybody, without having to contort your writing to do so.

(I would also comment that some books go out of their way to be gender-neutral, particularly through the use of "gender-neutral" names: Chris, Sam, Pat, Jean, and so on.)

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    I would add to your excellent answer that one reason for using feminine pronouns is not just a historical imbalance but that even now most papers that use a singular pronoun still use masculine pronouns. Perhaps the question should have been why most papers use exclusively masculine pronouns, not why a few use exclusively feminine. Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 16:09
  • @espertus: Thanks for your comment. I've changed "historical" to "ongoing" to account for this.
    – aeismail
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 16:12

Some authors alternate sexes between chapters or sections in an attempt to sound more gender balanced.

While "they" has historically been the correct pronoun to use when sex is unknown or irrelevant, some grammarians took offence to the usage of "they" as it is also a plural pronoun while he/she/it are singular.

  • Does "historically" mean that, at some time before 1960 or so, people usually (or at least frequently) used "they" as a singular pronoun of unspecified gender? If that's what you meant, I'd like to see a source for that information, as I hadn't heard it before. Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 15:18
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    @AndreasBlass Not specifically in academic writing, but singular 'they' has a long attested history: blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/tomchiversscience/100184652/…
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 19:06

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