# gender pronouns redux

As a new user with an interest in this topic, I ask if the following edit type would be seen as offensive or annoying:

Suppose one is talking about a hypothetical student. If an answer has the following sort of language "But he overlooks the $x$ dependence in his solution. But if he had done it correctly it could have worked", can we edit the pronouns to they / their? That is, the hypothetical student is automatically assumed to be male, and we edit to make it gender neutral.

Personally, I'm not sure why someone would take such an edit personally. However, modifying the language in this way leads to a more inclusive nature in a community.

Of course, such edits should have the description field filled in as such.

Perhaps this is seen as frivolous or the language innocuous, but another perspective is that modifying one's behaviour is essentially trivial, and it'll placate those annoyed.

• I think that there are good reasons to use neutral formulations points to the fact gender specific formulations do have a different meaning. I would rather not change the meaning of someone elses posts. – Michael Greinecker Jun 11 '13 at 13:39
• In principle I cannot see anything objectionable to such edits, and there appears to be value in them. However, every edit of a post bumps that question onto the front page. Making a series of such edits to older posts in quick succession will likely draw the ire of a nonempty subset of math.SE users, regardless of any good intentions on the editor's part. – user642796 Jun 11 '13 at 13:47
• of course, it would be more of a policy of "going forward" than mining the archives. more generally i would imagine making any edits to older (answered) questions is considered poor form – citedcorpse Jun 11 '13 at 13:49
• Making worthwhile edits to older posts is fine, as long as it is done in strict moderation. When I have edited older posts I have always ensured that the previously edited post leaves the front page before I edit the next one, as well as kept below some small limit (5-7 per day). – user642796 Jun 11 '13 at 13:52
• Evidently there is opposition to changing pronouns unilaterally. You could leave a comment asking the author if they would mind if you changed the pronouns in their post to gender-neutral ones. – user856 Jun 11 '13 at 17:32
• Hmm. I try to use s/he or some such combo. Ugly like the North end of a Southbound horse, sure. My problem is that I'm not very comfortable with singular they, as I don't recall it being explained to me during the years when I was still able to learn English. Several other non-native speakers may be similarly handicapped. Of course, a perfect solution would be to switch to Finnish or some other language where there are no gender specific third person pronouns ;-) – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 11 '13 at 20:49
• A side note: english.stackexchange.com/questions/48/…. Take it for what you may. :) – apnorton Jun 11 '13 at 21:40
• I'm with @Jyrki. I know "singular they" is a valid construct; I just don't like using it, and I won't use it even at gunpoint. If I had used "he/him" in a post, I could be coaxed to use "s/he" or "him/her" through comments, but I would strenuously object to my posts being edited to use "singular they". – J. M. isn't a mathematician Jun 12 '13 at 3:09
• I kinda like the mathematical nature of "xe", where "x" indicates an unspecified gender. (A buddy and I came up with this formulation many years back. I've since seen it on the interwebs ---though it's not on the English.SE list linked by @anorton--- so I guess my buddy and I weren't as innovative as we'd thought.) I've never had the nerve to use it anywhere outside of personal communication. – Blue Jun 12 '13 at 8:15
• @JyrkiLahtonen The usual reason to prefer "they" over he/she (or variants of this) is that many people do not have a binary gender, so he/she would be innacurate whichever is deleted. I imagine that this is confusing for non-native speakers, but I can assure you that a singular they works just fine. (While that is a nice feature of Finnish, I personally like having adverbs as separate words!) – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 10:15
• one point that comes with being a native english speaker is being used to nonnative speech. a minor error shouldn't cause offence (or at least, not to me). as an australian for instance, i am very used to south-asian / middle-eastern / west-european / etc. touches on the english language – citedcorpse Jun 12 '13 at 10:23
• A good point, @Matt. My exposure to the plights of trans* persons is limited, but I'm all for reducing any extra load they may need to carry caused by limitations of all languages. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 12 '13 at 10:56
• Would you have edit the not-very-rare "she" which you can find in posts, talking about some arbitrary person? – Asaf Karagila Jun 12 '13 at 15:30
• Good point, @AsafKaragila, but - having dated a postmodern feminist philosopher - I expect the answer to be 'yes'. – gnometorule Jun 12 '13 at 17:02
• This debate always makes me annoyed, and I think people should be allowed to keep whatever pronouns they like. What if the author imagined that the hypothetical student was male when they wrote it? What if they imagined they were female? This issue is far too politically correct for my tastes. Also, there are simple biological ways to identify if someone is male or female. If someone identifies with a different gender, it does not change their biological makeup. Of course, we haven't even started on the fact that "he" is conventionally used to mean "either gender" in English. – daviewales Jun 18 '13 at 1:07

I for one would find such edits very annoying (even though I generally, for example on MSE, use the "they/their" version in writing). There is no "automatically assumed to be male" in using "he" -- it's only there if you choose to read it as such.

Using "he" for unknown gender is a convention just as valid as purportedly "more gender neutral" alternatives, such as "they/their" and whatnot. Editing it out would qualify it as "wrong", while it isn't.

It may not be what "neutral gender" proponents would have written, but it's someone else's post, and their decision to make. In particular, this freedom applies to non-native speakers of the English language; often they already have put in a lot of effort to have their mathematical writing legible and comprehensible. We don't/shouldn't want to be nitpicking on their use of pronouns. There's enough substantial editing to do instead of enforcing one's view on gender-neutral expressions.

In short, editing someone's expository style to conform to one's preferences is, in my strong opinion, not a good way to promote the use of neutral-gender pronouns (regardless of how commendable such promotion is). Let me stress that edits in the opposite direction (e.g. changing "they" to "he") are in the same category for me, and should be avoided as well.

This is a site for mathematics, not a place to spread one's ideals on the use of the English language (by means of edits; of course one may lead by example in one's own answers). That's how it has been, and that's how it should stay.

Martin Sleziak's answer in the other thread largely coincides with the above.

• May I just add that I believe we are talking about more than "ideals". There is substantial research revealing the impact of non-gender-neutral assumptions/statements on those excluded by such language. And particularly in male-dominated fields like mathematics, there is good reason to seek inclusive language, just as there is good reason to be be polite in one's comments, and good reason to treat others with respect. etc. Treating others with respect can also be seen as an ideal, but I think most agree, one worth striving for. – amWhy Jun 11 '13 at 17:05
• May I add that, personally speaking, while I do not take personal offense, I do grow weary of receiving comment, after comment of the sort: "Thank you sir!..." As I said, I do not take offense, and I appreciate gratuities and such...but still... – amWhy Jun 11 '13 at 17:09
• I have no desire to edit posts; I do believe the matter needs to be addressed, though. I would certainly never think to edit or flag comments, but I have occasionally written comments to point out when I think particular assumptions are inappropriate. In certain contexts, perhaps I would edit a question or an answer if the language is dismissive of gender, or culturally insensitive, and/or belittling of a user. Mostly, I comment. – amWhy Jun 11 '13 at 17:27
• While I agree that we should refrain from editing posts, it's absolutely ludicrous to say, "There is no 'automatically assumed to be male' in using 'he.'" Yes, there is an established tradition of using 'he' when the gender of the subject is not known. This is precisely what people find objectionable: the default gender assumption should not be male. – Potato Jun 11 '13 at 17:42
• Like I said: It's only there if you choose to read it as such. If you read it as a quirk of tradition, it's not there. And it certainly does not warrant the denunciation "absolutely ludicrous". Your condescension is both offensive and unwarranted. – Lord_Farin Jun 11 '13 at 17:50
• It's not ludicrous. 'He' has showed up as a gender-neutral pronoun in manuals of style for centuries. – Alexander Gruber Jun 11 '13 at 19:59
• i'd hesitate to suggest that the practices of peoples in the past centuries are necessarily good guidelines for future equality hey – citedcorpse Jun 11 '13 at 21:47
• @AlexanderGruber That would only be relevant if these times were marked by gender equality. – Michael Greinecker Jun 11 '13 at 23:11
• @amWhy Can you cite the research you've mentioned? I'm curious. – Billy Rubina Jun 12 '13 at 7:03
• @potato: so alternate. I personally find switching between he hypotheticals and she hypotheticals better than using singular they hypotheticals (but that's just me). (BTW, there's a LaTeX package of that.) – Willie Wong Jun 12 '13 at 8:07
• +1. Editing someone else's post to make it conform to your world view is highly disrespectful (any such edit). I personally, most typically, alternate as Willie Wong suggests, but if others don't, this is none of your business. As to addressing a user by the wrong gender, if this matters to you, choose a user name that identifies you clearly as one or the other. Only people disregarding the hint are disrespectful; those assuming male gender just operate by maximizing likelihood, probably ready if not eager to correct themselves if their error is pointed out to them. – gnometorule Jun 12 '13 at 12:53
• "maximising likelihood" is precisely the bug in the system we are trying to correct for. we live in a world where one of the best gateways to STEM thinking, Lego, markets specifically to boys, except of course for their special "girl Lego" which is pink and purple and portrays a city for women built solely on cafes, hair salons, and kitchens – citedcorpse Jun 12 '13 at 15:20
• @exitingcorpse: Could you just please take your soap-boxing elsewhere? My gf is a female academic with an engineering background; if for no other reason, I feel strongly about gender-equality. But there's a difference between actual discrimination for which there should be no place in this society, and looking for discrimination everywhere. Thank you. – gnometorule Jun 12 '13 at 16:53
• @exitingcorpse Now you're just being confrontational, which really doesn't help. – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 18:46
• Please create a chatroom if you insist on discussing further -- although tempting, comments are not designed for that (I address both "sides" here). It wouldn't bother me so much if I weren't getting the countless pings. Thanks in advance. (And please, no replies to this message. I'm pretty certain everything has been said.) – Lord_Farin Jun 12 '13 at 19:06

While

1. I generally use singular "they" / "their" where possible (as a native English speaker, this comes naturally), occasionally using "he or she" / "his or her" etc. for various reasons (pronouns which pay respect and raise consciousness about trans issues are, quite frankly, tiresome in that they open the field to philosophical or sociological debates in potentially any and all casual conversations, which is exhausting - in addition to simply sounding funny, of course), and

2. Often when people use "he" generically they simply weren't consciously thinking about gender, instead mentally attending to other things, and if the question "I need to make the gender of who I'm referring to unspecified and ambiguous so it is known I could easily be referring to men or women" explicitly crosses one's mind, the answer is rarely "he is the best pronoun to use for this purpose and there are no wider complications in using it in this manner," and

3. I find the tradition of privileging the male pronoun with the imbued interpretation of default genericness and not female pronouns to be quite plausibly rooted in sexism, quite probably a contributing factor to it, and therefore annoying and deserving of change, even if any particular instance of it is little more than a blip of annoyance,

I don't think anybody should edit others' posts for this purpose, or approve such edits, because even disagreeable expository or linguistic choices are the property of the author. Making the owner aware of these choices and what you think of them is fair game in my opinion.

• Are you referring to things like "zie" and "hir" in point 1? Every non-binary person I know prefers "they" as their pronoun because it was already reasonably common as a neutral pronoun, so it doesn't draw attention to itself too heavily. Plus people know how to pronounce it. – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 17:39
• @MattPressland Exactly. – anon Jun 12 '13 at 19:16
• So in that respect, "they" is a perfectly reasonable way to be respectful towards trans issues without any hassle. I'm just a little uncomfortable about the bracketed section of your first item, but that might be because I'm missing your point. – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 20:08
• @MattPressland The parenthetical is specifically in reference to what's immediately before it: the phrase "he or she" (which is binary, obviously, hence the segue). – anon Jun 12 '13 at 20:10
• OK - so do you mean you prefer "he/she" (or variants) over zie etc. whenever "they" doesn't work for some reason? If this is the case then you do the same as me anyway, I was just confused. I think because I can't recall a time when "they" was a problem I missed your point. – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 20:16
• Singular they does not come naturally to all native speakers: despite much historical support, it’s simply ungrammatical in my idiolect. I certainly don’t ‘correct’ it when others use it; I no longer even wince and occasionally even fail to notice, though it took me years to reach that point; but I can no more use it myself than I can say the man who she hit (it has to be whom) or those problems was hard. I work to find usable workarounds and generally succeed, but in a pinch I will fall back on he as a generic pronoun in preference to they: to me it genuinely is one. – Brian M. Scott Jun 13 '13 at 4:31
• Brian M. Scott, what supposed ideolect is that? – dfeuer Jun 22 '13 at 8:32

I use singular "they" most of the time. I don't do so religiously, and I'm sure I've used "he" when it seemed stylistically superior, or when the gender of the user in question seemed obvious.

I would consider anyone editing my post solely to change my pronouns an antagonistic act. This site is a place to discuss mathematics, not to agitate for social change.

In new posts, I don't really care what other people do, but urge them to keep in mind that mathematics is hard enough to understand -- especially for non-native speakers! -- without having to spend additional time decoding arcane or non-standard grammatical constructions like "hir" or "xyr."

• I think the point of propositions like "hir" is exactly that they are fully grammatical and agree with number etc. They are non-standards words though. – Michael Greinecker Jun 13 '13 at 6:01

I sometimes find myself using "he" as gender neutral simply because it's grammatically less problematic. There are situations where using "they" might be confusing, and so even though I'd like to use it, I find myself forced to use "he" as a gender neutral. I wouldn't want somebody to edit my post to "they" if I purposely avoided using it because I felt it would be confusing.

I also wouldn't want my posts to be edited to "s/he" or "he/she", because those are ugly and distracting. On balance, sometimes it's just better to use "he" - it's a bit silly, but that's the way english has ended up.

• Can you give an example of "they" being confusing? I can't think of one - for as long as I can remember I've defaulted to using "they" to refer to somebody of unknown gender, and I don't remember it ever being a problem. – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 13:17
• The point is that people who feel strongly about this mean to change the way you perceive it: traditionally, he (or "man") was to stand for either gender, which implies male-centricity. This is their right to feel, and I see the point and try to take it into consideration when typing. But it is utterly presumptuous to allow them to talk for you, by editing your post. I live in a city (NYC) whose mayor spends his entire reigh deciding for its citizens what to think and do, and don't take kindly to people who try to introduce this to a site I used to feel strongly about. Beware the beginnings. – gnometorule Jun 12 '13 at 14:27
• I don't know if that comment is addressed to me specifically... I agree with others that editing posts to change pronouns is too far, and I personally wouldn't even comment on it. But my feeling is that "they" is perfectly comprehensible in almost every situation, and neutral towards people of any or no gender - if a few people who use "he" because they haven't thought about this (which is fine) see this thread and switch to "they", I will consider this A Good Thing. – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 17:30
• @MattPressland: It wasn't addressed at you at all. I agree with your comment, and some of your earlier statements; it just seemed that this answer didn't quite address the concern of OP. We probably grew up in different countries, and in different times; so for you, using 'they' likely by now is second nature. It is clear and not ambiguous, but - sorry - just so damn ugly. :) I think it was in "On Writing Well" where I read a longish, friendly diatribe against it for esthetic purposes, and I agree. However, while my comments maybe obscure it, I'm completely on board with gender neutral writing – gnometorule Jun 12 '13 at 18:47
• @gnometorule That's fine - I wasn't sure if I'd been leaving an accidental subtext! – mdp Jun 12 '13 at 18:51
• It is worth pointing out that singular "they" goes back to the fourteenth century: eng.sagepub.com/content/32/2/79.refs – Michael Greinecker Jun 12 '13 at 21:51
• @MattPressland "If a kid has a fight with their parents, I think they should apologize first." Granted you could just not use a pronoun, but you could do that in any situation. – Jack M Jul 4 '13 at 2:59
• @JackM Good example! I would prefer not using a pronoun in this case, but sure, it's definitely confusing to use "they" there. – mdp Jul 4 '13 at 8:53
• @JackM...nothing wrong with that statement...it makes perfect sense, and it's consistent with the rapid changes in such language use. I write this in 10/16, and what you wrote does not sound awkward. I suspect you chose to write this sentence to make a point? Well, as of late 2016, it fails to make any point at all; in fact, it offers a common mode in which people are actually communicating. – amWhy Oct 27 '16 at 22:39
• While I'm at it, what exactly makes you claim "I find myself forced to use "he" as a gender neutral." Who, exactly, forces you to do that? I could totally understand your claim if there were someone following you that persistently threatened you if you chose to do otherwise. At the very least, accept responsibility for the choices you make regarding the language/grammar you choose to use. – amWhy Oct 27 '16 at 22:47