Gender-Neutral Pronouns in an Academic Article

OK, I have a question for fellow academics. In an academic paper, is it acceptable to use gender-neutral pronouns (zie, hir, etc.)? Or not? Have you ever seen it done in an academic context?

More specifically, if I have a character (in a novel) who lives the first half of their life as a woman and the second half as a man, whose genitals make it impossible to identify them as either male or female, and who uses both male and female pronouns to refer to themselves, how do I refer to this character in my article?

23 thoughts on “Gender-Neutral Pronouns in an Academic Article

  1. I am glad the subjects of my papers are inanimate objects 🙂 This is a problem I would not want. I only had a look to see what ideas were offered.


  2. I’m actually big on the gender neutral pronoun “they” – but this particular case is difficult. How does the novel refer to them, how does Virginia Woolf refer to Orlando (I forget), etc.?


    1. The novel uses “she” almost the entire time because it only becomes clear at the end that the character is actually a he.

      Should I mimic the way the novel does it and explain this in the “Notes”?


      1. In Orlando Orlando is he until he becomes she.

        Is this Herculine Barbin?

        “Should I mimic the way the novel does it and explain this in the “Notes”?”



        1. “Is this Herculine Barbin?”

          – No, it’s Spanish literature. But, of course, I’m using Foucault’s prologue to Herculine Barbin.

          I think mimicking the novel is the best way.


  3. An old professor of mine grappled with this same question regarding a classic Japanese story, Torikaebaya Monogatari (The Changelings in English) which involves two siblings, one who dresses as a man and lives as a man, and one who dresses and lives as a woman, who switch roles around in the novel frequently. I think she ended up referring to them by their titles and using “they” to refer to their pronouns when uncertain.


  4. In the papers I write for my major (Gender Studies) I typically use the pronoun “hir.” I find that it’s not as difficult for people to accept (it starts with an h). It’s a perfectly acceptable gender neutral pronoun.


  5. If the novel is consistent about pronouns, with the first half female and the second half male, you could mimic it.


  6. I’m not in favor of gender-neutral pronouns. Often, when I use pronouns, I’m being lazy. When I write “him” or “her” in a sentence, I’m often referring to a unique person. In such cases, the laziness is justified, and a person reading my writing is grateful. If, however, I’m writing in purely general terms, I tend to substitute, “one” for the pronoun “he” or “she” to indicate a singular individual. This works well in English, but is more difficult in languages that are incredibly gender dependent. E.g.:

    “If one desires a spouse, one ought not do things that are anti-social.”

    It takes a little more effort, but I’ve found that thoughtful writing results.

    Of course, is one is discussing a subject where the gender binary is applicable, then go for it.


    1. “I’m not in favor of gender-neutral pronouns. ”

      – I know, I dislike writing filled with endless hirs and zies, too. One or tow are fine, but dozens? The writing becomes hobbled, in my opinion.

      ‘One” will not work here because I have an actual person. I can’t say “then one asked them for some bread” instead of “then she asked them for some bread”.


      1. I don’t see what’s wrong with the singular they. It has the following advantages over the gender neutral neologisms and s/he:

        (1) It uses a word already present in the language to fill in a gap in the distribution of pronoun forms. Clarissa, you mentioned that writing with a surfeit of gender-neutral neologismic pronouns becomes hobbled. Now, I don’t know why you find it hobbled, but if it becomes hobbled due to using neologisms then using the singular they avoids that problem.

        (2) It has a long established usage that goes back centuries and to writers at the core of the English literary canon. For example, Shakespeare and Austen both used the singular they. WP quotes a source saying that the singular they has a history back to the 1300s, the central part of the Middle English period.

        (3) It has already become standard usage in a number of formal contexts. For example, in Australian law and official publications of the Ontario government (including laws and regulations) (cite).

        Singular they has the following advantage over the phrase “he or she:

        (1) It is shorter and less wordy.

        The singular they has the following advantage over the pronoun “it”:

        (1) The pronoun “it” has a strong connotation of inanimacy. Just about the only time the pronoun “it” is used to refer to a person is when you find that someone has just become a parent and you ask “Is it a boy or a girl?”. Almost every other time, the animate pronouns of “he”, “she”, and their inflected forms are used to refer to people. Basically, using an inanimate pronoun to refer to something animate sounds odd.

        Any issues arising from potential confusion between singular they and plural they can be avoided by careful phrasing and the use of context.


        1. You don’t think that “hir” and “zie” sound weird? Especially when repeated in every sentence of a 30-page article?

          As for “they”, it will not work in this context. It just won’t. I want to say things like “Carlos and Lucien go in search of (her?) and this makes them question their own identities.” Imagine the confusion of substituting “her” with”them”.


  7. I am not one to speak up here, I suppose. I really dislike the plural ‘they’ used as a gender neutral pronoun. It appears simply careless at best and illiterate at worst. If I am forced to use a gender neutral pronoun, the transliterated Mandarin Chinese “ta” is quite reasonable.

    I still believe that my high school Latin teacher had it right: She said “When the gender is uncertain, give it to the weaker; that is, use the masculine form.”


    1. I realize this may not be Clarissa’s predicament, but what to do in cases where the gender is quite certain but is neither masculine nor feminine?


  8. I do think “hie” and “zir” sound weird. I thought I made it clear in my first justification but I guess I wasn’t. If I wasn’t clear then it’s my fault, as I’m supposed to make myself understood.

    bloggerclarissa :
    As for “they”, it will not work in this context. It just won’t. I want to say things like “Carlos and Lucien go in search of (her?) and this makes them question their own identities.” Imagine the confusion of substituting “her” with”them”.

    I’d simply use the name of the person who is being searched for, and use “them both” to refer to Carlos and Lucien. That is, “Carlos and Lucien go in search of X. This makes them both question their own identities.” Since both is always dual it cannot possibly include X. In other words, what I meant by careful phrasing and use of context.

    As an aside, we could both be here for a million years coming up with example sentences back and forth. 😦


  9. Rob F :
    I don’t see what’s wrong with the singular they&hellip

    Me either. It’s an evolving language. After all, ‘you’ is a plural form that we use routinely in a singular context. Its singular form is ‘thou,’ of all things.


      1. “The plural of you is ya’ll. It’s a shame ya’ll Yankees haven’t retained it’s use.”

        – I’d happily use that in my article. 🙂 But I’m afraid it won’t go over too well. 🙂


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