Friday, August 19, 2016

On Teaching the Use of Gender Neutral Pronouns

A Sample of Gendered and Gender Neutral (Ungendered) Pronouns: See More

Opportunities to Introduce Ungendered or Gender Neutral Pronouns

Because  I teach freshman composition, I often do not have the opportunity to teach topics that stretch beyond Standard English as it's used in essays about general topics.  However, every so often the opportunity to "freestyle" does present itself, and in those situations, I like to be prepared to add needed impromptu lessons to my course.

For example, I recently had a student who was struggling with how to divide her short essay into logical paragraphs.  Although I do not generally teach the use of APA headings and subheadings in freshman composition, I introduced the concept to her to help her organize her essay.

In much the same way, I anticipate that I may someday need to introduce students to the proper use of gender neutral pronouns.  I do not generally teach pronouns and antecedents in composition courses, just as I do not generally teach APA headings and subheadings, but if a student is struggling with how to refer to gender, and I believe learning the use of gender neutral pronouns may ease that student's suffering, I want to be prepared to introduce options.

Gender Neutral Pronouns and APA

Gender Diversity Topics

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) reminds us that when writing in the context of gender diversity, it is expected of writers, and respectful to subjects (the antecedents of the pronouns), to use gender neutral pronouns to refer back to individuals who prefer gender neutral pronouns.  When in doubt, they also advise writers avoid the use of pronouns altogether (2010, p. 72-73).  Furthermore, APA advises the use of the singular "they" if necessary and if in the context of gender diversity, regardless of Standard English usage.

On the other hand, writers must also be sure to use gendered pronouns when they refer to subjects who prefer gendered pronouns.  Hillary Clinton and Caster Semenya should both be referred to as "she," for example, and Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner should be referred to as "she," as well. Using the male or ungendered pronouns to refer to any of those example subjects might be interpreted as aggression or hostility toward those subjects.

General Topics

The APA Style Blog (Lee, 2015) gives the following advice for writing in Standard English about general topics versus topics in the context of gender diversity:

APA recommends several alternatives to the general singular they, including the following:
  • Make the sentence plural: "Participants indicated their preferences."
  • Rewrite the sentence to replace the pronoun with an article (a, an, or the): "The participant indicated a preference."
  • Rewrite the sentence to drop the pronoun: "The participant indicated preferences."
  • Combine both singular pronouns (he or she, she or he, his or her, her or his, etc.): "The participant indicated his or her preferences." (However, avoid overusing this strategy, as it can become cumbersome upon many repetitions.)

These alternatives are also available for you to use when writing in the context of gender diversity if you would prefer them or if you are unsure of the appropriate pronoun to use.

Other alternatives to the singular they are not recommended:
  • Avoid combination constructions like s/he, (s)he, and he/she because they can look awkward and distracting to the reader.
  • Do not use either he or she alone to refer to a generic individual—"use of either pronoun unavoidably suggests that specific gender to the reader" (PM § 3.12).
  • Do not alternate between he and she (e.g., using he in one sentence and she in the next), as this can also become confusing and distracting to the reader.

Practical Examples

As a matter of being prepared, there are several hypothetical assignment scenarios I can anticipate that may require teaching ungendered pronoun use.
  • Acceptance of “ey” in a narrative essay or short story about a real person who prefers “ey.”
  • Acceptance of singular “they” in an essay about restroom policies using singular “they” to refer to individuals who refer to themselves as "they."
  • Acceptance of “xe” to refer to the writer of an article used as source content because the article writer refers to xemself as such. 
  • Acceptance of "she," or likewise "he," to refer to individuals who prefer to be recognized as her or his gender in efforts to avoid being construed as an aggressive or hostile writer.
Whether the need to teach ungendered pronouns comes up in my classroom in the next few days, months, or even years, I find it best to stay prepared to introduce students to the ways in which they can maintain their own integrity as writers, and the integrity of others, no matter the rhetorical situation.


American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lee, C. (2015). The use of singular "they" in APA style. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Read more . . .

on the LGBT Resource Center Web site through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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