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Words matter: Guidelines for pronoun usage

There exists no attribute more central to the human condition than one’s identity. Our identity – whether it is cultural, professional, ethnic and national, religious, gender, or disability – is a central tenet of representation. It affects how we communicate with others and our communication about others. Thus, it is important that we as scholarly writers and professionals are as cognizant of the identities of our audience as we are of our own.
The use of personal pronouns indicates how we would like to be referred to while also signaling to others that we will respect their choice of pronouns as well. For example, over the years, there has been a shift towards including women into general language by using “he or she” or just “she” when referring to a single woman as the subject. However, in the English language, there are very few words that allow us to respectfully recognize the identities of people whose genders are neither male nor female, as “he” or “she” may not represent the genders of all people. As stated in the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual, “some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preference should generally be respected.”

Our contributions to any body(ies) of knowledge should reflect the diversity of our audience. Failure to address the need for inclusion ultimately lends itself to alienation and isolation. In many cases, such failures can reinforce stereotypes and uphold cultural norms. For example, informally referring to a group of engineers as “the guys on the team” or publishing a case-report study in which a trans person is referred to as “he-she” has devastating consequences that undermine the progressive work of inclusion and diversity.

Here are a few guidelines for you to consider incorporating into your writing:

  1. Never refer to a single person as “it” or “he-she”. These words are extremely offensive slurs used against trans and gender non-conforming individuals.
  2. If you do not know someone’s pronouns, respectfully ask and correctly use the pronouns.
  3. If you do not know what pronoun(s) to use for an individual person or collective group, use “they.”
  4. Think of your audience and employ methods of gender-fair writing that is gender-inclusive.

As society changes and becomes more accepting, we must all do the same. After all, diversity without inclusion is meaningless.