3 posts categorized "Bias-free language"

November 16, 2015

The Use of Singular “They” in APA Style

Chelsea blog 2by Chelsea Lee

Dear Style Experts,

Can I use the singular “they” in APA Style? Is it okay to use “they” or “their” to refer to a single person, or should I say “he or she” or “his or hers” instead?

—A Reader


Dear Reader,

In APA Style, whether it’s appropriate to use singular they depends on the context.

The Context of Gender Diversity

APA supports the choice of communities to determine their own descriptors. Thus, when transgender and gender nonconforming people (including agender, genderqueer, and other communities) use the singular they as their pronoun, writers should likewise use the singular they when writing about them. Although the usage isn’t explicitly outlined in the Publication Manual, APA’s guidelines for bias-free language clearly state that writers should be sensitive to labels:

Respect people’s preferences; call people what they prefer to be called. Accept that preferences change with time and that individuals within groups often disagree about the designations they prefer. Make an effort to determine what is appropriate for your situation; you may need to ask your participants which designations they prefer, particularly when preferred designations are being debated within groups. (APA Publication Manual, 2010, p. 72; see also the supplemental material to PM § 3.12)

Thus, choose the appropriate pronoun for the people you are writing about. Note, however, that many transgender people use the pronoun that matches their gender identity or gender expression, which would be she for a transgender woman and he for a transgender man. Other possible terms are noted in the supplemental material.

When writing with the singular they, use the forms they, them, their, and themselves.

The Context of General Use

The singular they is also commonly used to refer to a person whose gender is irrelevant or unknown—for example, imagine the sentence "The participant indicated their preferences." However, most formal writing and style guides, including the APA Publication Manual, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the AP Stylebook, do not currently support this usage, deeming it too informal and/or ungrammatical.

Instead, APA recommends several alternatives to the general singular they, including the following:

  • Make the sentence plural: "Participants indicated their preferences."
  • Rewrite the sentence to replace the pronoun with an article (a, an, or the): "The participant indicated a preference."
  • Rewrite the sentence to drop the pronoun: "The participant indicated preferences."
  • Combine both singular pronouns (he or she, she or he, his or her, her or his, etc.): "The participant indicated his or her preferences." (However, avoid overusing this strategy, as it can become cumbersome upon many repetitions.)

These alternatives are also available for you to use when writing in the context of gender diversity if you would prefer them or if you are unsure of the appropriate pronoun to use.

Other alternatives to the singular they are not recommended:

  • Avoid combination constructions like s/he, (s)he, and he/she because they can look awkward and distracting to the reader.
  • Do not use either he or she alone to refer to a generic individual—"use of either pronoun unavoidably suggests that specific gender to the reader" (PM § 3.12).
  • Do not alternate between he and she (e.g., using he in one sentence and she in the next), as this can also become confusing and distracting to the reader.

The Future of Singular They

The use of singular they has received a lot of attention in recent years, and the tide seems to be turning in favor of using it more generally, not just in the context of gender diversity. After all, the usage addresses a real need for a gender-neutral, singular, third-person pronoun in the English language. Indeed, some magazines and newspapers have officially endorsed the broad use of singular they in their pages.

It’s possible that APA might directly endorse the singular they in the future, but that decision lies in the hands of the task forces and committees that craft and approve the Publication Manual, not just in the hands of the writers of this blog.

In the meantime, we hope that this post clarifies the current ways in which it is appropriate to use the singular they in APA Style. You may also be interested to read APA's Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People, which discusses these issues in more detail and provides a glossary of terms and definitions.

We welcome your thoughts and feedback on this matter and hope you will share them with us in the comments below.

February 09, 2012

A Little Respect

Daisiesby Stefanie

It’s hard not to be sentimental, emotional, even sensitive around February 14, while surrounded as we are by hearts, flowers, chocolate, and conversation hearts. Although scholarly writing would seem to not have much in common with a holiday revolving around love, the lesson of sensitivity that comes with the day is worth exploring.

When meeting a new person of (romantic) interest, do you call him or her by whatever name you choose or by his or her actual name? I hope you would use the name or nickname your potential beloved prefers. In the same way, be conscious of the labels and tone you use when discussing individuals and groups of people in your work. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.) has a large section (Reducing Bias in Language, pp. 70–77) as well as supplemental material (see also these documents on gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities) devoted to explaining how to discuss individuals with respect and accuracy. It is all important reading for specific recommendations; in the meantime, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind.

Be precise. For example, school-age females could mean different things to different people. Fifth-grade African American girls who score in the top 10% of their class in math is a much more specific and thus more helpful description.

Mention differences only when relevant. If marital status, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic identity, or disability don’t have an effect in your experiment, don’t mention those characteristics gratuitously in your article or report.

Call people what they want to be called. Some terms can be perceived as pejorative or patronizing (e.g., the elderly, handi-capable); do not use them.

Don’t reduce a person or group of people to a condition (e.g., the demented, the autistic). Instead, identify participants first as people (e.g., people with dementia, people with autism).

Also, consider whether the terms you are using have any unintended or colloquial meaning(s) that you do not want to bring to your article or paper. For example, see the beginning of my second paragraph. “Person of interest”? Anyone who has seen any police procedural show (or, indeed, Person of Interest) knows that person of interest is often used as a euphemism for someone suspected by the police of committing a crime. (The smooth operators among you can spin this into “the crime—of stealing my heart!” but the rest of us may be more likely to shy away from a real-life person of interest, and we certainly wouldn't want to be one.)

Finally, if you’re talking about colleagues or researchers who disagree with your outlook or argument, afford them the same respect and sensitivity in your paper that you would like them to extend to you in theirs. As the Publication Manual says, “differences should be presented in a professional, noncombative manner” (p. 66). For example, Dr. Jones may be right in reporting, “Satipo betrayed his lack of character by not throwing me the whip after I threw him the idol,” but the editors of Archeology Today would likely prefer a more neutral wording, such as “Satipo did not throw me the whip after I threw him the idol.”

In the end, keep in mind that both in writing and in life, a little sensitivity can go a long way!



January 13, 2012

APA Style Interactive Learning

AnneGasqueAnne Gasque

Have you ever had the urge to read the Publication Manual from beginning to end? We thought not. 

It takes a special kind of stamina and devotion to approach a manual of writing guidance and style rules with the excitement a person might bring to, say, John Grisham’s latest legal thriller. To help you find your way in the manual, we’ve created an interactive online course. This course, available for continuing education credit, provides a comprehensive tour of the guidance in the Publication Manual

Basics of APA Style: An Online Course follows the organization of the manual and offers an in-depth overview of the types of articles used in psychological and social research, manuscript elements, heading style, reducing bias in language, punctuation, capitalization, italics, numbers, tables, figures, citing references in text, creating a reference list, and reference templates and examples. Many of the sections in the course include relevant examples to provide context, and each section ends with two or three review questions to help you learn as you go along. The course ends with 20 assessment questions and offers 4 CE credits upon successful completion. We hope you find the course a helpful tool for learning APA Style!

If you would like a broader less detailed overview of APA Style, we offer a free tutorial, The Basics of APA Style, which shows you how to structure and format your work, recommends ways to reduce bias in language, identifies how to avoid charges of plagiarism, shows how to cite references in text, and provides selected reference examples.

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