How and Why We Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns


The Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis is taking steps to update the language we use, in order to recognize the gender spectrum and to be a more inclusive community for our transgender and gender nonconforming students, staff and faculty. 

Students and faculty are asked to thoughtfully consider the pronouns they use in their academic work. Accordingly, all course instructors are encouraged to accept the use of gender-neutral pronouns (they/their/themself) in students’ writing, including formal academic papers.
“Despite a common misperception to the contrary, the use of singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun in the English language is not grammatically incorrect,” wrote Vanessa Fabbre and Peter Coogan in a 2017 report “Use of Singular They in Academic Writing and Communications: Background and Recommendations for the Brown School.”

Fabbre is an assistant professor and Coogan is coordinator of the Communication Lab at the Brown School. Their report laid the groundwork for the School to “accept and adopt, when possible, the use of singular they by students in course papers and other documents and in official communications. There is no comparable substitute.”

The Brown School Office of Communications has reviewed the School’s print and digital communications to remove and replace unnecessarily gendered pronouns (such as “s/he” or “he or she” to refer to an unspecified person).

An example of revised, gender-neutral usage: If a student aims to update their résumé, they are encouraged to set up a meeting with Career Services. In advance, the student should brainstorm how to best describe themself and their accomplishments.

If you see an opportunity for any additional pronoun updates in the Brown School’s materials, please contact with specific information, such as the webpage URL.

The report thoughtfully outlines the importance of these changes:

Binary gendered pronouns (he/she) impose a binary view of gender that does not accord with the concept of the gender spectrum (Kilman, 2013), can cause psychological harm (Hidalgo, 2013), exceptionalizes trans identities, and reinscribes difference (Wooley, 2015, p. 376, 381).  The gender spectrum has been accepted in neurology (Kranz, 2014), biology (Ainsworth, 2015), social work (Austin, 2016), psychology (American Psychological Association, 2015), psychiatry (Lim, 2015, p. 399), and women’s and gender studies.

Accepting the use of singular they in academic and professional writing is the responsible choice for social work and public health programs because it recognizes the gender spectrum and aligns with the National Association of Social Workers’ (2008) core value of the “dignity and worth of the person” and the principle of treating “each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity.”