Recently, the use of gender-neutral language—also known as gender-inclusive language—has become a trending topic, and it’s something to consider when writing your academic papers and essays. We’ll walk you through the various gender-neutral options, looking at when they might be most appropriate.
How is This Different From What We Do Now?
Many of us are used to binary—gender female or male—use gendered words like he/she, him/her, boy/girl, man/woman, and so forth. However, non-binary gender is viewed as more inclusive and allows for different types of gender identities that are not simply female or male. Complimenting non-binary gender is gender-neutral language, which addresses everyone, no matter their gender. For example:
He opened the umbrella.
Only talks about males.
They opened the umbrella.
Could be talking about anyone.
Why is it Important?
In a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, it was estimated that nearly 1 million adults in the United States are transgender (Meerwijik). In response to the needs of this population, universities across the country have begun to create gender-inclusive housing, and states like Washington and Oregon have begun offering citizens the option of marking their gender as a neutral “X” (Cummings).
Even Europe has taken notice. School gender advisers are normal in Sweden and are part of the national curriculum (Hebblethwaite). The UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, The Fawcett Society, calls for gender-neutral language to be used in all statutory, official and legal documentation. The charity has even released guidelines for its implementation, stating, “We are aiming to reflect the population as a whole in which the numbers of women and men are more or less equal” (Davis). Gender-neutral language is expected to increase inclusion and promote equality. When it comes to writing academic papers, impartiality is especially important, so bias towards either gender should be avoided.
Great! How Do I Do It?
Although it might take a little getting used to at first, there are actually lots of ways to make your academic writing as gender-neutral as possible. Let’s take a look:
Switch to Plural
A sentence can often be made gender-neutral by switching the nouns and pronouns from singular to plural. For example:
A student should use gender-neutral language in his papers.
Students should use gender-neutral language in their papers.
Use “They, Their, Them and Themselves” as a Singular Pronouns
While traditionally used as a third-person plural pronouns, “they, their, them and themselves” are rising in popularity as a singular, ungendered pronoun option. The “singular they” is an important language tool as there is no other option apart from “it”, which is not accepted as an appropriate pronoun for a person.
The scientist can’t show bias. He has to remain impartial.
The scientist can’t show bias. They have to remain impartial.
Every student is expected to be at his desk on time.
Every student is expected to be at their desk on time.
Those wanting to play it very safe grammatically might choose to use “he or she” or “s/he”, or similar, to ensure both genders are included equally. The issue with this is that it can be jarring to read if repeated too often.
The winner of the race will take his or her place on the podium. He or she will then be presented with a medal, and details of his or her fastest time will be displayed on the big screen.
Switch Between Genders
A similar but less jarring option is to simply alternate between genders through your work. However, you should avoid doing this within a short section of text as the reader might assume that you’re now talking about someone different when, in fact, the subject is the same.
He decided to conduct an impartial study into explosive chemical reactions. First she needed to research chemicals with explosive tendencies.
Use Gender-neutral Nouns
Gendered nouns have fallen out of favor in recent years, as they’re often considered to perpetuate stereotypes. As a result, more gender-neutral alternatives have developed (“The Language of Gender”).
- Policeman — police officer
- Mankind — humans, humanity
- Freshman — first-year student
- Chairman — chair, chairperson
- Mailman — mail carrier, postal worker
- Steward/stewardess — attendant
- Congressman — congressional representative
Of course, some nouns are already gender-neutral (i.e. teacher, scientist, reader, poet, artist, writer etc.). These can be a good option, although you might still find yourself searching for a gender-neutral pronoun down the line.
Use Proper Nouns
If you know a person’s name, you can use variations of that without substituting for a pronoun. This can also be useful if you’re unsure of their gender (“Gender-Inclusive Language”).
Dr Sam Watson gave a lecture on physiology. During the presentation, Watson discussed the main organ systems of the human body.
Don’t Refer to Gender Unless Necessary
If the gender of a person goes against the expectation, it might be tempting to mention it. However, this can actually reinforce the stereotype.
- You might say, “I was seen by a male nurse.”
- But you’re unlikely to say, “I was seen by a female nurse.”
- This is because, often unconsciously, we tend to assume that a nurse will be female. If gender isn’t relevant to the sentence, leave it out.
Use Spivak pronouns
Spivak pronouns are a modern variation designed to be gender-neutral (“The Need for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun”).
- She/He — E
- They — Ey
- Him/Her/Them — Em
- His/Her — Es
- Their — Eir
- Theirs — Eirs
- Himself/Herself/Themself — Eirself/Emself
There are several different variations on gender-neutral pronouns currently vying for popularity, including per, ve, xe and ze/zie (as alternatives to he/she). Check with your teacher before using these in your paper.
The Formal “One”
“One” is a gender-neutral pronoun, however it’s deemed to be very formal and is rarely used in common speech/language. It can also quickly become repetitive in use.
One should go to the library where one can conduct research for one’s paper.
Ask for Advice
As you’ve read, there are numerous options for using gender-neutral language in your academic essays and papers. If you’re feeling confused, your lecturer or student advisor should be able to help. Why not mention it when asking which type of citation you should use—MLA, APA format or another style?
If you need help creating citations, an APA reference page, or have general questions about formatting, EasyBib.com has a useful citing toolkit including formatting guides and a citation generator.
Cummings, William. “When Asked Their Sex, Some Are Going With Option ‘X.’ USA Today, 21 June 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/06/21/third-gender-option-non-binary/359260001/.
Davis, A E L. “Gender Neutral Language In Statutory, Official and Legal Documents.” Fawcett Society, 3 August 2017, www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/gender-neutral-language-in-statutory-official-and-legal-documents.
“Gender-Inclusive Language.” The Writing Center, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/gender-inclusive-language/.
Hebblethwaite, Cordelia. “Sweden’s ‘Gender-Neutral’ Pre-School.” BBC News, 8 July 2011, www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14038419.
“The Language of Gender.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, en.oxforddictionaries.com/writing-help/the-language-of-gender.
Meerwijk, Esther L., and Jae M. Sevelius. “Transgender Population Size in the United States: A Meta-Regression of Population-Based Probability Samples.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 107, no. 2, February 2017, pp. e1-e8. NCBI, doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303578.
“The Need For A Gender-Neutral Pronoun.” Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog, 2010, genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/.
Roberts, Rachel. “Hull University Threatens To Mark Down Students Who Don’t Use Gender Neutral Pronouns.” Independent, 3 April 2017, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/hull-university-gender-neutral-pronouns-students-mark-down-not-use-a7664581.html.