Reader query: pronoun choice in paper about parenthood

Reader S poses this challenging question:

A colleague and I are finishing up on a paper that deals with issues related to parenthood and procreation. We spent some time debating what gender pronouns to use throughout the paper to refer to “the parent” and “the child” in our discussion. Because the paper will make heavy-handed use of these pronouns in the abstract third person throughout the entire length of the paper (i.e. “The parent is situated such that s/he …” or “The child deserves to have given to him/her by the parent…”), we would like to be able to consistently assign one gender pronoun to the parent and one to the child. We think this is the best way to avoid confusing the reader (i.e., “Wait, who does this pronoun refer to again?”). But, given the context, we are worried about how gender norms will be read into the paper as a result of what we assign.

Our first thought was that we wanted to use masculine pronouns for the parent. This is at least partially because we want to avoid creating the assumption that parenthood is equivalent to motherhood, and that male parent figures are included in the scope of our argument. We also want to create a space that challenges the idea that philosophical issues of parenthood are of exclusive interest to those philosophers who happen also to be women. That is to say, philosophers who happen to be men do and should also have a stake in philosophical discussions about parenthood and children.

If we do so, then we would use feminine prounouns for the child. However, given that the paper heavily discusses the vulnerability of children before those who parent them, and their status as requiring extensive care and nurturing, we were concerned about invoking a sense of paternalism with respect to women in the reading. We don’t want the reader to get the impression that the feminine-gendered child is cared for, nurtured by, protected by, etc. the masculine gendered parent figure.”

If we reverse the assignment (feminine pronouns for parent, masculine pronouns for child) we run in the problem, again, of parenthood seeming to just mean motherhood.

We talked about other options: mixing it up or switching around the gendered pronouns, using masculine and feminine (and culturally diverse) names for example cases, etc. But those other options — the ones that save us from the aforementioned problems — would really, really obfuscate our core argument and add significant length (and word count) to the argument.

So, my question to the community here is this: is there a way to avoid both of these problematic implications (philosophical discussions of parenthood as just about motherhood and including only women, and men take care of girls/women) AND preserving the sense of organization and clarity in our paper? We would really appreciate your thoughts as we decide what to do while editing this paper.

30 thoughts on “Reader query: pronoun choice in paper about parenthood

  1. Can you assign names and leave the pronouns out? Pick non-gender-specific names and be done with it? When I was studying I had a list of suitable names (Sam and Chris, for instance) and found that that worked relatively well. I have found that unfortunately referring to infants as “it” often causes offense, but “they” is becoming increasingly accepted as a singular pronoun in many circles.

    As an undergrad I went through a phase of using s/he/it (pronounced shit) in essays. It has the advantage of being easy to use in speech where “she or he” is not. That term, BTW, generally offended the markers not already offended by my insistence on referencing at least one pornographic magazine in every essay – Playboy used to be a goldmine of well referenced essays on a diverse range of topics (and they paid their authors well… there’s probably a connection). I imagine that’s no longer the case.

  2. i always use ‘they’ as it is now an accepted gender neutral singular pronoun, would ‘the parent’ and ‘the child’ disturb the flow of the piece when used in places where ‘they’ is an ambiuous reference?

  3. Computer scientists tend to just name the referents Alice and Bob for A and B. You could switch that off with Adam and Beatrice every chapter. Or maybe Pat the Parent and Bobby the Baby plus singular they.

  4. While I disagree with anon 7:57 that “they” is now an accepted gender neutral singular–it’s a choice of taste, and I’m slightly old fashioned–I do think that the easiest way to do it is to simply write in the plural and avoid the hassle. At least, that seems to me the most stylistically satisfactory way of doing it. Otherwise you could alter the gender of your hypothetical examples.

  5. Singular ‘they’ should work very well for this sort of paper. Most people will find it perfectly natural for generic or unknown antecedent:

    “When the parent is held responsible for their child…”

    Singular ‘they’ is jarring for known antecedent and for direct reference or demonstration. Bad:

    ?”Kripke wrote ‘Naming and Necessity’ after they gave a series of lectures.”

    And you can’t point at your father and say,

    ?”I owe a lot to them.”

    Some copyeditors might give you a hard time. Stand up to them!

  6. How about this: give them female names but pick male pronouns (or vice-versa) and add a footnote at the start saying most of what you said in this post – i.e. you didn’t want to use female pronouns because of not associating femininity for either vulnerability or motherhood. Or something similar with using s/he throughout. Whatever you choose, I would put the footnote in.

    Good luck, and keen to hear what you chose

  7. Here’s another thought: start with male pronouns for the parent and female pronouns for the child, and then switch halfway through the article. This should minimize confusion, since the reader will only have to adjust once. The practice could be announced in a footnote at the beginning.

    I also like The Moz Collector’s idea of using gender-neutral names rather than pronouns.

  8. I agree with Wahine1 that that footnote is important to include. One option might be to use “Parent” and “Child” in place of he/she and “Parent’s” or “Child’s” in place of his/her. That is, use their neutral designations instead of pronouns throughout. It’ll read a bit awkward, but it won’t add to your word count or the reader’s confusion about who the intended referent is.

  9. One possibility is just to adopt some convention arbitrarily and explain in a footnote how all of the options are far from ideal. If you’re really worried about reinforcing stereotypes, then occasionally include counter-stereotypical examples. For example, you could mostly use `she’ for the parent, then once in a while talk about David and his daughter Miriam.

  10. I say go for the dad and the daughter. Both seem underpriviledged positions. The overpriviledging of the father-daughter relationship is the only problem I can think of, solved with a footnote. I’d love to read a paper that talked about “parents” but that constantly said “he.” Each time I’m reminded that men parent too, each time this is normalized, I get a thrill of feminist delight. This is worth risking a paternalistic reading that very few will seriously make against a well-thought out footnote.

  11. I generally find that I can say parents” and “children” instead of “the parent” or “the child” and on the whole it not only solves the problem, but it reads better.

  12. I like to use gender-neutral pronouns, which are becoming more common, particularly with those doing intersectional work involving gender studies. “Zie” for s/he/him/her and “hir” for his/her. For instance: If I read an article whose author used “they” as a singular pronoun, I would involuntarily think less of zie as a writer.

    The usefulness of this depends, of course, on either the audience’s familiarity with the new convention or a good footnote.

  13. Oops, meant to say “zie for she/he and hir for his/him/her” and “I would involuntarily think less of hir.” Funny how something I do without thinking when actually writing goes awry when i try to describe it.

  14. I think you should use examples throughout the paper, and in the examples vary whether the parent is male or female.

  15. My two cents:
    Pretty much all the suggestions above seem potentially workable to me (depending on how they suit the flow and style of the paper) except:
    1.  Zie and hir, and their ilk.  Sorry.  The fact that even M, in hir comment above, gets mixed up in the course of explaining them (notwithstanding that zie claims to use them fluently in ordinary writing, which I’m sure is true), should be a clue that these neologisms are too non-standard to be used.
    2.  They/their/them as singular pronouns.  I freely admit that I sometimes bow to peer pressure to adopt this usage myself, albeit with great agenbite of inwit.  I also know that Matt Brown is correct in stating above that this usage is far from new (though disfavoured semper et ubique, as far as I can tell), and that it has been indulged on occasion by luminaries ranging from Spenser to Swift to Shaw. Nevertheless, H.W. Fowler’s classic response to an equivalent argument by Otto Jespersen (on a different grammatical point) sums it up for me: “I confess to attaching more importance to my instinctive repugnance for [such nonsense] than to Professor Jespersen’s demonstration that it has been said by more respectable authors than I had supposed.”

    3. Any footnote addressing the solution.  The solution only requires a footnote if the footnote is necessary to make the solution intelligible, and if that is the case, it almost certainly the wrong solution – ergo, no footnote.  If the reader can understand unaided whatever you end up writing, and your solution does not put the reader at real risk of some kind of comprehension difficulty, then there is not sufficient rationale to add a footnote.  If you worried a footnote is necessary to avoid someone reading gender norms into your solution or for that matter your paper, try to resist the urge to render an accounting in a footnote.  Don’t feel a duty to anticipate and pre-emptively disclaim every unwarranted inference someone might conceivably draw from your writing.  (We see plenty of this in academic writing and I hope I’m not alone in finding it tedious.)  You’re composing a paper, after all, not a product warning label.

    Good luck with the paper!

  16. Nemo – I doubt very much that the usage has always been as disfavored. I rather suspect, though cannot demonstrate, that the prohibition against singular they is an artifact of the institution of rigorous grammar instruction in the mid-19th century, one of a number of arbitrary and specious rules. The split infinitive is certainly an example of this very thing.

  17. Matt, I expect that you are right as far as the assertion of a *prohibition* against the usage is concerned, but that is not what I meant.  I meant disfavoured in the sense that I perceive that the usage
    even in pre-mid-19th century formal/literary writing was noticeably less commonly employed than alternatives for the singular.  I, too, lack easy means to demonstrate this, but I have formed that impression from my own reading.

  18. I think I’m with Matt Brown on the historical question, but it’s not 100% clear to me what the question is.

    Nemo, it is a certainty that ‘he’ and ‘she’ have been used much more frequently than ‘they’ as singular pronouns. If that’s all you mean by ‘disfavoured’, then no problem. But that isn’t the kind of disfavor that counts against using a word, right? And Jane Austen used singular ‘they’ (and objective and genitive forms) a lot. I confess that I am more inclined to trust Miss Austen’s instinctive repugnance and my own than to defer to Master Fowler’s (or even Nemo’s). [<– not serious.]

    However, Nemo's other points seem about right to me. Most of the time we don't want to call a great deal of attention to our pronouns; it's distracting and detracts from the arguments of the paper. I suppose in some cases it might add to the force of a paper to have the reader thinking hard about the pronouns all the time. Then by all means neologize and annotate!

  19. @Jamie, well those are fair points on the historical issue. I think by “disfavoured” that I meant no more that what you supposed. On the other hand, this arguably *is* the kind, or is *a* kind (though degree may be relevant here), of disfavour that counts in deciding whether a usage is standard or not. Writers seem to have shown a marked preference against the usage even before there was a positive rule about it. Mightn’t we say that when it comes to language usage, at some point the descriptive (a given usage is usually avoided in certain kinds of writing) becomes prescriptive (that usage is *to be* avoided in certain kinds of writing)? I’m not saying that’s always true or never to be regretted, or that the principle carries over well to other human institutions. Yet doesn’t it seem to be kind of how things work in language, and that this is related to the utilitarian purpose of language? Anyhow, just thinking out loud here (figuratively, of course); I’m sure there are many important considerations I’m neglecting, and I don’t want to provoke the ire of the philosophers of language among us…

  20. Nemo, yes, that could be right, as long as ‘avoided’ is taken in the right way.

    Odd example: many people are powerfully averse to the word ‘moist’. If that’s sufficiently wide-spread, writers would do well to avoid it (unless they mean to trigger the aversion, of course).

    But on the other hand the word ‘pupil’ is much less common than the word ‘student’ (they were about equal in frequency in 1820). I don’t think I would describe that difference by saying that writers avoid the word ‘pupil’, but in any case the point is that the relative infrequency isn’t a reason to avoid that word. (Or do you think it is?)

    I just thought of an interesting experiment. I will run it and post again shortly.

    I really wish wordpress had a ‘preview’ function. It doesn’t, so I will just hope that my anchor tag worked properly.

  21. Good, my anchor tag in 21 did work. And I have run my small experiment. (It was fun — I might have to jump to X-phi!) Keep in mind that I am a rank amateur at this; if there’s something wrong with my experiment I will be grateful for correction.

    The goal was to test for the hypothesis that singular ‘they’ has become more common over the past couple of centuries, in formal writing. The data are from the Google Books corpus, and the apparatus is Google’s ngram generator. We could just search for ‘they’, ‘he’, and ‘she’, but that doesn’t seem satisfactory, for a number of reasons (the main one is that singular ‘they’ is likely to be a very small percentage of all occurrences of ‘they’). So I wanted a phrase that could have either ‘they’ or ‘he’, with the singular antecedent forced or almost forced, but a short enough phrase to be common and get a big sample.

    I chose these two phrases:

    “everybody in ___”, “everybody has ___”

    filling in the blanks with the *possessive*. This doesn’t quite force the pronoun to have singular ‘everybody’ as antecedent, but it seems likely that that structure predominates. That is,

    1a. Everybody has their textbook today.
    1b. Everybody has his textbook today.
    2a. … everybody in their own way…
    2b. … everybody in his own way…

    are going to be more common constructions than

    3a. John Henry is in trouble — everybody has his number.
    3b. Microsoft controls the market, because almost everybody has their word processing software.

    Well, hm, that now seems a bit dubious, but my assumption is that the differences in frequencies over time will reflect differences in the choices writers make among the first set, at least roughly.


    For “everybody in ___”, the frequency is very noisy in the early 19th century, then ‘his’ becomes much more popular in the 20th century, and then by 2000 ‘his’ drops down to about the frequency of ‘their’. (Ngram here.</a?

    The relative frequencies for "everybody has ___" are similar to those for "everybody in ___", until the late 20th century, when the frequency for 'his' again declines rapidly but not *as* rapidly as for "everybody in ___", and the frequency for 'their' rises to meet it, until the frequencies cross in the 1990s (so "everybody has their" becomes more popular than "everybody has his"). (Ngram here.

    Interesting. The first suggests that recent writers simply want to avoid the gender marked ‘his’, while the latter suggests both that desire and increased comfort with using unmarked singular ‘their’. I can’t see why there should be this difference between “in their” and “has their”.

    I hope everybody will try their own experiments! (And that I didn’t screw up the anchor tags…)

  22. I’ve often wondered the following about people who find singular ‘they’ (or more newfangled gender-neutral singular pronouns) repugnant in its generic use: What about cases of actual referents with known (but either non-standard or non-existent) gender(s)? There are people (of various gender-identities) who prefer that people refer to them according to some or all such pronouns. I’m one of these people some of the time (though not most of the time). Is this sort of request less problematic or is it a (perhaps justifiable on other grounds) descent into grammatical deviancy?

    [This post was made out of genuine curiosity and is intended to be snark-free. The last line might sound provocative, but this is only because the author desperately wanted to include the phrase ‘grammatical deviancy’.]

  23. @Jamie, I’m not sure I completely understand how that was done, but – what a fascinating tool. Could it shed more light, I wonder, on when the acceptance of the secondary, non-gender-specific usage of he/him/his with respect to individuals began to wane? I think the searches you already did are relevant to that, but many other searches could be elaborated.

    @Fun-nonymous, I’m not sure I followed 100%. Could you give some illustrative sentences where you think what you’re describing would arise?

  24. Yeah, it’s a great time-waster. You mean you don’t understand how *I* did what I did, or you don’t understand how Google does what it did? I assure you the former is entirely trivial!

    Yes, there must be other searches that would be enlightening. The trick is to formulate the right ones.

    Here is the ngram for “every citizen has his”. The very coarse trend seems to be that there’s a weird spike around 1840 (which I bet is due to something completely irrelevant to our question), then a long term rise, peaking in around 1960, and a fast decline. What do you make of it? (It’s hard to find useful phrases with enough occurrences in the corpus, is the main problem.)

  25. Really fun data, Jamie! Will try not to spend the whole day coming up with more searches.

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