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Center for Teaching & Learning: Perspectives on Teaching & Learning

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What’s Your Pronoun? Gender and Grading Papers

by Reena Lederman Gerard on 2018-07-09T00:00:00-04:00 in Educational Technology | 0 Comments

If you were grading student papers, would you comment on either of these sentences? Would you mark the student down for either?

  1. Anyone who wants to share their ideas should sign-up.
  2. Anyone who wants to share his or her ideas should sign-up.

If you were in my seventh grade English class in 1975, Ms. Taylor would have drawn a red slash through the word “they.” I don’t think she would have liked the “his or her” option either. Warriner’s English Grammar & Composition was the final word. Times have changed.

There’s a lot that can be discussed about gender, from state laws that recognize a third gender to the public restrooms designated for everyone. Gender does play a role in when and how we use pronouns. Likewise, old grammar rules play a role. When it comes to writing, some people still debate which pronouns acceptable. However, many standard-bearers, such as the The Washington Post and The Chicago Manual of Style, have moved on and they officially recognize the usage of “they.”

In academia, the rules are slowly changing when it comes to pronouns. The English language, as taught in schools, uses two third-person pronouns, he and she. The expectation is that when we write, we identify a person by gender. Some people use “one” when trying to remain gender neutral, but it often sounds too formal. To overcome the formality and minimize gender, some writers have adopted “he/she.” When the person was an indefinite, or generalized, formal writing often defaulted to “he.” The women’s rights movement changed this.  To reduce the marginalization of women, some writers would use the two pronouns interchangeably. Switching between “he” and “she” from sentence to sentence just added to the confusion. A solution was to use “they.” In spoken English, it’s common practice to use the singular “they” when we wish to keep conceal a person’s identity, we don’t know a person’s gender, or we chose to honor a person’s preferred pronoun (i.e., he, she, they, etc.). However, written English in academia has been slow to change.

In Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular “They,” Anne Curzan makes several arguments in support of the singular “they” in academic writing. She is a historian of the English language with unique insight. The most interesting point she makes is that “there is nothing grammatically wrong with singular they other than the fact that people say there is something wrong with it.” According to Curzan, singular “they” can be singular. I’m not a historian of the English language, but I am a “listener”. Everywhere I go I hear the singular they, or as John McWhorter writes tongue-in-check, the “royal they (2013).” I’m in favor of the singular “they.” I use it in speech and most writing. Yet, I confess that I struggle when writing a journal article. It’s awkward. Most of what I write follows APA, which leaves the writer to determine what is appropriate for the context. I’m stuck with those guidelines. This doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Ask a colleague and see what they think.

Curzan, A. (2015, December 16). Witnessing a rule change: Singular “they” [Blog post]. Retrieved from

McWhorter, J. (2013, April 30). The grumpy grammarian weighs in on the royal they. Retrieved from

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