The Writing Center @ The University of Wisconsin - Madison

Using Gender–Neutral Pronouns in Academic Writing

 

As the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) explains, "Language plays a central role in the way human beings behave and think" ("Guidelines for Gender–Fair Use of Language"). With this in mind, it is important to consider how we are precisely and inclusively using individual words. For a thorough set of guidelines and examples of how to use gender–fair language (including creating gender balance and promoting gender equity in pronouns, titles, labels, and names), see this detailed advice from NCTE.

On this page, we focus on one dimension of inclusion and fair–language use: using gender–neutral pronouns when writing about an individual intentionally presented without gendered characteristics, someone with a mix of gendered characteristics, or a person/community who identifies outside the he/she binary. In these academic writing circumstances, using gender–neutral pronouns in your writing is the most appropriate option.

Three Common Gender–Neutral Pronouns

Pronouns Nominative (subject)   Objective  
(object)
Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun   Reflexive  
they/them/
theirs
They write. I wrote about them. Their paper is excellent. That paper is theirs. They cited themself.
ze/hir/hirs Ze writes. ("zee") I wrote about hir. ("heer") Hir paper is excellent. That paper is hirs. ("heers") Ze cited about hirself. ("heerself")
ze/zir/zirs Ze writes. ("zee") I wrote about zir. ("zeer") Zir paper is excellent. That paper is zirs. ("zeers") Ze cited about zirself. ("zeerself")

(Table adapted from the one presented in the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog.)

Choosing Which Gender–Neutral Pronouns to Use

When writing about a person who uses gender–neutral pronouns, there are several ways to figure out which pronouns to use. If you're writing about a person you can contact, you can ask this individual about pronouns and utilize the pronouns this person uses. For example, if a person uses "ze/hir/hirs," it is inappropriate to replace those pronouns with "they/them/theirs." You can also trace the pronouns other writers and researchers have used when writing about your research subject. If you are writing about a person for whom there isn't consensus around one set of pronouns, we advise using the most current pronouns you find.

Clarifying Your Choices

Some audiences may be unfamiliar with gender–neutral pronouns. One of the ways to communicate with such a readership about your pronoun usage is to add an explanatory footnote after the first application of a gender–neutral pronoun in your paper. This can help readers understand your decisions as a writer. Here are some examples of how to do that.

1 In this paper, I use the self–reported gender pronouns my participants provided, including the gender–neutral pronouns "ze/hir" and "they/them." For more information, see the UW–Madison LGBT Campus Center guide to pronouns (https://students.wisc.edu/lgbt/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2016/07/LGBTCC-Gender-pronoun-guide.pdf).

1 The narrator of Winterson's Written on the Body is never given a gendered pronoun or any specific gendered characteristics. To preserve the gender–neutral presentation of the narrator, I am choosing to use "they/them" pronouns in reference to the narrator in my paper.

Works Cited

NCTE. "Guidelines for Gender–Fair Use of Language." National Council of Teachers of English, revised by Nancy Prosenjak, et al., National Council of Teachers of English, revised ed., 2002, http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/genderfairuseoflang. Accessed 10 Aug. 2017.

"The Need for a Gender–Neutral Pronoun." Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog. 24 Jan. 2010, https://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/. Accessed 10 Aug. 2017.