General Question

bezdomnaya's avatar

What is your opinion on using feminine instead of masculine pronouns in academic work?

Asked by bezdomnaya (1435points) July 7th, 2009

It is grammatically incorrect to say something like ‘the student turned in their homework’. That leaves three choices:
(a) ‘the student turned in his homework’
(b) ‘the student turned in her homework’
(c) ‘the student turned in his/her homework’
A while back, there was a movement to make use of (a) and (b) equally in academic work or to even use solely (b). How do you feel when you are reading an academic journal or book and you come across something like (b)? Which do you personally prefer to use?

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63 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

I am fine with using the masculine as a catch all.

Jeruba's avatar

I was reared in the old school wherein the masculine pronoun stood for both, and not just in academic writing but generally. This never bothered me. I considered it to be a legitimate and well-defined extension of the meaning of “he” and “his.” I was a youngster in the first flowering of feminism, which raised my awareness but did not change my perception of this English convention. In my own writing I still use the masculine this way.

Later as a freelance editor in the 1980s I was sometimes required to follow a publisher’s style that called for alternating pronouns. I had to work through entire psychology textbooks and case studies tracking all the pronouns and making sure they alternated (while not messing up the ones that referred back to the same person). I thought it was perfectly ridiculous, but I did it faithfully because it was part of my job.

When I see the feminine pronoun used in the way you illustrate, especially when used exclusively, it jumps out at me as a self-conscious affectation, and typically as a political statement as well. I find it annoying and offensively condescending.

But I understand that to younger people, especially younger women, who were born well after the onset of feminist politics, the exclusive use of the masculine seems to be just as much of a shout as the feminine seems to me.

I don’t think there’ll be a good solution to this linguistic dilemma within our time or even in this century, but I think that eventually we will evolve a gender-neutral noun or pronoun (perhaps simply “one,” which has been there all along) and put all this unnecessary Angst to rest.


[Edit] As an editor I also learned and devised many solutions to pronoun problems and always found a way to rewrite around the issue when not deliberately following a masculine/feminine rule. Plural usually works (The students turned in their homework.) . There’s always “or” (Each student turned in his or her homework.). Sometimes you can solve it with a passive construction or a relative clause. Even when everything had to be singular (case studies involving one therapist and one client), I always found a way, so I know it can be done.

In the technical documentation that I work on now, everything is “you.”

EmpressPixie's avatar

I’m an extremely liberal feminist. I’m also a practical person. I’m fine with either use of “his” or “her” to be a catchall when something must be used as long as you are CONSISTENT.

And, to be fair, “his” is proper according to my grammatical upbringing. That doesn’t bother me a bit—we need something that works.

LexWordsmith's avatar

Feminine alone is just as culpable as masculine alone, unless one or the other is specifically required. As a copy-editor of college-level scientific and technical textbooks, i have begun to find the use of inclusive or gender-neutral language more faithful to the meaning of the work.

casheroo's avatar

I have noticed in newer textbooks, the alternating of the pronoun…it usually confuses me more than anything. I do prefer it to be just masculine or feminine…it’s just easier for me to follow. I have no strong emotions about it either way.

Jeruba's avatar

P.S. I don’t ever use a slash (“his/her”). I would stop reading something that followed that practice. I object to the use of a slash to replace a word.

Thammuz's avatar

Italians don’t have that problem. And i wouldn’t give half a shit if we did.

LexWordsmith's avatar

Alternating is ridiculous, unimaginative, and disorienting. There are much better ways to avoid using only one or only the other when both are intended or where leaving the issue unspecified makes sense.

@Jeruba : how do you feel about s/he? i think it’s kind of cute in the way it puns on two uses of the letter “h”. but i too inveigh, when i think that it will do any good, against “his/her”—“her/his” is so much better! . . . . . . . . . . . [;-))>
(bangs, wink, double chin, goatee)

Jeruba's avatar

@Thammuz, your second remark is not clear. Are you speaking as an Italian, so “we” means Italians? or who is “we”?

Jeruba's avatar

@LexWordsmith, I loathe it and have from first sight decades ago. It is not a word, a virgule is not a letter or a mark of punctuation, it is unpronounceable, and it is a cheap solution that treats the language as not only malleable (which it is) but flimsy and rootless, something easily brushed aside by will or whim as political breezes blow.

JLeslie's avatar

There is some irony that some people want he/she but then actresses now want to be called actors like their male counterparts. Hmmm?

cak's avatar

I cannot stand to read text with alternating pronouns. Commit to one or the other, not both. I generally lean to the masculine version, as it is the version I was taught.

Jeruba's avatar

@JLeslie, feminine endings of role nouns (waitress, hostess, etc.) have been atrophying for the same number of decades. Thank God “editrix” is no more.

When the feminine of “mister” loses its ending, then you’ll know we’ve gone all the way.

LexWordsmith's avatar

i know lots of edit tricks, but few editrices.

Jeruba's avatar

I remember asking my mother when I was quite young, if we have a host and a hostess, a waiter and a waitress, why don’t we have a father and a fatheress? I guess I’ve always been like this.

jamielynn2328's avatar

I personally use the his or her, but do not like alternating. It becomes a distraction and can cause confusion. Sometimes it is easier to just stick with the masculine, although I don’t agree with it in principle.

JLeslie's avatar

I’m waiting for them to come up with a better name for nurse. For a while it was male nurse if it was a man but I think it would benefit the women and men of this professions if they had a better title.

cwilbur's avatar

If you know the gender of the student, then you use it. “The student turned in his homework.” “The student turned in her homework.” If you don’t know the gender of the student, but must use the singular for some reason, you can use both. “The student turned in his or her homework.” If there’s no reason to keep it in the singular, recast it in the plural. “The students turned in their homework.”

I find universal ‘her’ and singular ‘they’ jarring.

MrItty's avatar

There is an option D. Passive voice, as I understand it, is gramatically correct, but is supposed to be used sparingly:

“The homework was turned in by the student”.

Regardless, this particular example is not the best. If there’s only one student, that student has a gender. That student’s gender should be known. If the student is male, ‘his’. If the student is female, ‘her’. The abstraction of “which pronoun do I use” only makes sense when you take the setence out of context. In whatever real-life situation that sentence was being used, the context would determine which pronoun is used.

cwilbur's avatar

The proscription on the passive voice is really only relevant for business and technical writing, where it’s more about clarity and evasion of responsibility than anything else: “Mistakes were made.” “A bad choice was made in this matter.” “The full ramifications of the decision were not understood at the time.”

(Consider the alternatives, recast into the active voice: “The management team made mistakes.” “The VP of finance made a bad choice in this matter.” “The engineering manager did not understand the full ramifications of the decision at the time.” If you’re writing in the active voice, it’s really hard to be as evasive and squirrely as managers often want to be.)

English needs deponent verbs badly.

MrItty's avatar

@cwilbur for the non-linguists among us, “deponent verbs”?

cwilbur's avatar

In Latin, the active or passive voice is reflected by the form of the verb. For instance, I can say audio, which means I hear, and audivi, I have heard, or audior, which means I am heard, and auditus sum, which means I have been heard.

Deponent verbs are passive in form but active in meaning. So mentior, for instance, looks like it should be I am lied to, but in fact it means I lie. And mentitus sum, which looks like it should be I have been lied to, means I have lied.

And to make things even more fun, there are semi-deponent verbs, which are ordinary verbs in some tenses but deponent verbs in the perfect tenses. So gaudio, meaning I rejoice, but gavisus sum, I have rejoiced.

DominicX's avatar


I took Latin and I found deponent verbs to be somewhat annoying, but I’m curious: how would a deponent verb work in English?

This is why the language I’m creating has a gender-neutral 3rd person pronoun that can be used as well as the gender-specific ones, sort of like “they” in English except it’s a separate word from the other pronouns.

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

I always try to use gender neutral language.
Instead of his/her/its I use they/their/one etc.

reijinni's avatar

If masculine is fine for other languages, it should be fine for English.

cwilbur's avatar

@DominicX: it wouldn’t. English grammar is based on particles, not inflection.

rooeytoo's avatar

I always try to use the plural, unless I am referring to a specific individual.

I think alternating is not a good solution.

I don’t like solely using the masculine, I do not want to be referred to as a “he.”

I also hate to be lumped into a mass by abeing referred to as guys! That really annoys me especially when women do it to themselves.

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

It doesn’t matter to me if the prounoun is masculine or feminine because my brain translates it to be plural and all inclusive anyhow. I was taught to read “he” and then in my mind, make it into he/she/they. Yay hippie parents.

LexWordsmith's avatar

@Jeruba : “fatheress”—cute! i can see you’ve been clever for a long time.

@jleslie : Just generalizing (as American appears to be doing) the former specificity of “nurse” strikes me as an excellent solution. Things would be more difficult in the UK, where the usual term for this occupation is “sister.”

@DominicX / @MrItty : i’m with you in being confused about how the concept “deponent” applies to this discussion, but Wikiperdia has an informative (although not relevant) article on defective verbs in English, if you are interested.

@reijinni : do you have any statistics on what proportion of other languages use “masculine for all”? My impression is that it’s pretty small, outside perhaps the Germanic languages.

@rooeytoo : yeah, isn’t that curious how a server at a restaurant will address a table of female customers as “guys”? and i’m seeing/hearing “fellows” in similar contexts also, although (imnsho) that’s not as bad, because etymologically it’s not necessarily associated with masculinity nearly so exclusively.

LexWordsmith's avatar

@JLeslie : my apologies for forgetting your majuscules—you certainly deserve to be as redly highlighted as anyone else!

JLeslie's avatar

@LexWordsmith no apology necessary, but thank you. I think the title nurse does not get the respect it should. Especially 4 year degreed RN’s. Generally, professions that have been thought of as traditionally female roles tend to get lest respect, and I think Nurse is still thought of as predominantly women, so I think getting a more status oriented title might be better. Just my opinion. Oh, and not to mention here in the states we NEED nurses badly, we import them into many of our major cities from outside of the country. So, making it more appealing in any way would be good.

bezdomnaya's avatar

Guys, (another example of using the masculine as all-encompassing) all great answers! I personally use the masculine religiously. I find the feminine replacement to be demeaning and unnecessary. Alternating, as has been pointed out, is confusing. And based on my reading of English usage guides (my favorite here ), the slash is just plain icky.

@Jeruba Your answers are particularly insightful. If you weren’t already in my fluther, you would be now. Lurve!

DominicX's avatar

After examining the way I talk, I noticed that I never use the masculine or feminine versions as gender-neutral. In the homework sentence, I would say “every student turned in their homework”. I don’t say “his or her” either. I use “one” and “they” as gender-neutral forms.

Pol_is_aware's avatar

Men and women is to people; as his and her is to ?????????

Whoever made up the English language needs to finish what he or she started.

Jeruba's avatar


But that does not solve the problem.

bezdomnaya's avatar

@MrItty The gender does not have to be specified by the context. You could be speaking in hypotheticals, as in the instructive: “After the student turns in his worksheet, give him the homework to do for tomorrow’s class.” The plural doesn’t work for this either (see below).

@DominicX “every student turned in their homework” means something completely different than (a) or (b) above. This can be illustrated in the difference between the example I just used above and: “After every student turns in their worksheet, give them the homework to do for tomorrow’s class.” The first means that each separate student gets the new homework as he comes up to turn in his worksheet. The second, that you hand out the homework after all of the worksheets have been turned in.

DominicX's avatar


Still. I would use “they”, “them”, and “their”, not “his or her” or “his”. I’ve just never done that. I was never taught to use any method; I just developed that on my own.

LexWordsmith's avatar

@bezdomnaya : almost all religions are patriarchal, so of course religiously is how one would use the masculine!<grin>

LexWordsmith's avatar

@bezdomnaya : just as a matter of curiosity—use of the feminine pronouns is demeaning to whom?

LexWordsmith's avatar

“After a student has turned in the worksheet, give that student the homework.”
“After all students have have turned in the worksheets, give each [or ‘them all’] the homework.”

The choices are rarely as limited as this discussion has suggested—adhering to a paucity of structures tends to lead to polarization and adversarial speech, whereas i judge that the effort should result in a collaborative movement away from prescriptivism and toward comfortable good sense.

cwilbur's avatar

@LexWordsmith: that’s a perfect example, though, of why generic ‘he’ is a problem, and why I like seeing generic ‘she’—because the argument that says that generic ‘she’ is demeaning to men is the same argument against generic ‘he.’

bezdomnaya's avatar

@cwilbur I never said demeaning to men. I mean demeaning to women (in particular, myself), actually. As was mentioned earlier, the general trend of profession terms has been to one all-encompassing term; sometimes this is the masculine (e.g. actor and actress to actor) and sometimes it is a gender neutral term (e.g. waiter and waitress to server). Why is it different for pronouns those tricky little devils?

wildpotato's avatar

I follow my favorite professor’s example on this, and always use “she” when one might expect to see a “he” (most of the time) and a “he” when one might expect to see a “she” (such as when referring to nurses, receptionists, etc.). This in order to draw a small part of the reader’s awareness to her own unconscious expectations of language. It is supposed to be jarring – this is what encourages reflection.

That all applies when talking about humans and animals. I wrote my thesis on theodicy, and referred to God many times. My advisors and I puzzled over the issue of personal pronoun use, and concluded that “he”, “she”, and “it” were all inappropriate, and that the best thing to do in academic writing is to simply say just “God” every time instead of a personal pronoun. Makes sentences a bit awkward unless you get really creative.

casheroo's avatar

This thread made me listen to my son more closely, and I realize he never says “she” or “her.” He knows the difference between girl and boy though. I just found it odd.

LexWordsmith's avatar

for God, i suggest making up a solemn sacred pronoun—say, The One.

LexWordsmith's avatar

no, The One God is eternal, by definition.

but, if you read How to Think about God, by Mortimer Adler, you will see that it is at least arguable that a Supreme Being (one better in every positive way than every other being) need not be the Abrahamic “Creator God” (and, in fact, Mormons believe that the “God the Father” of this universe is an “Organizer God” and say nothing about where the “original” universe came from).

Thammuz's avatar

@LexWordsmith Way to take a joke seriously.

Regardless of that: I do know mormons, sadly enough, and for what i can see is the reptilian version of christianity. God has an “exalted body” god has knowledge deep enough to manipulate energy and matter, yadda yadda yadda. Disregarding every possible scientifical knowledge ever.

About the “supreme being” i don’t see a problem with that, but if you’re not talking about something outside the universe we’re talking about aliens here… And if we’re talking about aliens (and we’re kinda beating a dead horse, after stargate i’m not surprised of any kind of possible theory on alien intervention in the development of mankind) why should we worship something that has emerged through naturalistic means, only because it’s more powerful than us? Good and Evil don’t go around with a business card, they’re labels we apply so i don’t see how “good” can be an intrinsic trait of some sentient being.

LexWordsmith's avatar

@Thammuz : i lived in a group house with three Mormons and an atheist before i got married. LDS are fit, mannerly, and above-average human beings, in general, but their doctrines are really hard to make sense of, at least for me.

Thammuz's avatar

@LexWordsmith Tell me about it. One of my GF’s best friends and her boyfriend are mormons. I enjoy conversating with them of ALL BUT religion because i can’t really snap and say “what the fuck, are you insane or what?”

LexWordsmith's avatar

@Thammuz : i just did tell you about it!<grin>

Thammuz's avatar

@LexWordsmith that was supposed to be an idiom… <countergrin>

LexWordsmith's avatar

and i am supposed to be an idiot, at least by many of my acquaintances.

mattbrowne's avatar

In Germany there are male, female neutral determiners: der, die, das. When plurals are used all determiners become female: die

LexWordsmith's avatar

i think that’s a misinterpretation of the fact that the plural articles are all spelled the same, and it happens that that spelling is the same as that of the feminine singular. Any native speaker of German would tell you that a masculine plural noun, in a context where it has an article, is not thereby treated as (nor does it “feel” like) a feminine singular (or feminine, or singular).

mattbrowne's avatar

@LexWordsmith – It’s a matter of perception. The real problem come with the inflection of nouns and not the determiners. Let’s take 100 female students (hundert Studentinnen) and 2 male students (zwei Studenten). Together they are still 102 Studenten which many female students in Germany view as being treated unfairly. A funny solution is 102 StudentInnen and a more pragmatic one is 102 Studierende.

LexWordsmith's avatar

i address the people that i play “sociable strategy” games with on line collectively as “Mitspieler(innen)”, even on a French-language gaming site—avoids having to guess whenever i don’t know.

There are instances in French in which a group of people exclusively male is referred to by a feminine pronoun—for example, when they’ve previously been referred to with “personnes”: Personnes qui sont tous des hommes, elles ne sont pas de Venus.

LexWordsmith's avatar

The example about “elles” really points up the non-indentity of the concepts “somatype” and “grammatical gender.” There are languages with 30-some genders (“kinds”)—round things, soft things, things that float in water, .... Grammatical gender is not really about sex, but about grammatical agreement of, for examples, adjectives with nouns.

mattbrowne's avatar

Thanks for sharing this @LexWordsmith !

Fyrius's avatar

(blatantly ignores most of the thread)

Actually, I don’t agree that the sentence “the student turned in their homework” grammatically incorrect. There have been developments going on that would render this sentence quite correct.
My ad hoc analysis of what exactly is going on would be that the pronoun “their” is becoming ambiguous, acquiring a second meaning as a gender-neutral singular third person pronoun, on top of its old meaning. Thus there is no violation of number agreement, it’s just another definition being used.

The meaning of words can change. This really shouldn’t surprise anyone. The only thing unusual about this particular change is that pronouns are “closed-class” word, meaning they don’t change as easily as nouns or verbs.

LexWordsmith's avatar

@Fyrius : another development that renders more probably logical the sentence “the student turned in their homework” is the rise of group projects, where one person, as representative, might turn in the result of the efforts of many.

Fyrius's avatar

Lol, yes, that’s true.

Strauss's avatar

@mattbrowne I call it the “masculinization” of plurals, where a noun or pronoun has both masculine and feminine forms. For example, the Spanish word for “cook” is el cocinero (masculine) or la cocinera (feminine). If one were to refer to a group of female cooks, the form would be las cocineras; if the reference is to either a group of male cooks, or a mixed group of male and female, it would be los cocineros.

This occurs in the other romance languages also, as far as I know. It certainly occurs in Latin, and I believe it also occurs in French.

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