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I was editing an academic paper for a friend, and she used several internet users as case studies to document their behavior on social media. For privacy reasons, she omitted their names, and referred to them as User 1, User 2, etc. In the main body of the analysis, she refers to them like:

User 1 is a male construction worker in Swogland. User 2 is a female 2nd generation Swoggish immigrant in NYC.

User 1 posted updates 5 times in Swoglish, but only when talking about elephants. He does not appear to like elephants very much, so his choice may indicate his distaste for the Swoglish language.

User 2 posted all 20 updates in Swoglish, but the content and competency of her posts suggests she was a Swoglish learner, and so she might be using Swoglish to practice instead of using it to communicate with her online subscribers.

I thought it seemed strangely familiar to refer to them using gendered pronouns in context, while actively depersonalizing them for academic reasons. It looks like we are telling a personal story about them instead of treating them as anonymized subjects.

I suggested avoiding pronouns as much as possible, and referring to them as User X each sentence, and when a pronoun was absolutely necessary, using a singular 'they' or 'their', as follows:

User 1 is a male construction worker in Swogland. User 2 is a female 2nd generation Swoggish immigrant in NYC.

User 1 posted updates 5 times in Swoglish, but only when talking about elephants. User 1 does not appear to like elephants very much, so this choice may indicate their distaste for the Swoglish language.

User 2 posted all 20 updates in Swoglish, but the content and competency of the posts suggests that User 2 was a Swoglish learner, and so might be using Swoglish to practice, instead of using it to communicate with their online subscribers.

Was this the right academic style?

* EDIT *

I added a second example to stress that we do in fact know the genders of the users. It just feels more narrative and less scientific to use their pronouns while hiding their names.

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    God created User 1 in His own image, in the image of God He created User 1; male and female He created User 1. – Ricky Apr 6 '17 at 0:55
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    @Quack: there is no "right" style. Singular-they is very common and has all but displaced 'neuter he', but it does still bother some people, especially in contexts where number (dis)agreement is more conspicuous. I would not advise repetition of "User 1" where you'd naturally use a pronoun if you knew their gender (see what I did there?). If you're uncomfortable with 'neuter he' or think it will raise hackles in your audience, go for singular they. That is, don't say "User 1 likes bananas, in survey 17, User 1 responded that", say "User 1 likes bananas, in survey 17, they responded that...". – Dan Bron Apr 6 '17 at 1:03
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    @Dan I wouldn't try to re-use the proper noun User 1 within a single sentence. In my experience, once each sentence is acceptable, and is fairly common in academic writing, to avoid confusion when many things could be labeled with the same pronouns [though that isn't necessarily the case here]. The question is should we use their "preferred" pronouns (which we have already established, we aren't guessing it) while hiding their identity? It feels like strange mixing of tone. – quack_inc4 Apr 6 '17 at 1:21
  • "they" used even for a singular seems to be the gender neutral way that is winning out in my opinion. Dan Bron explains it pretty well above – Tom22 Apr 6 '17 at 1:32
  • @Tom22 I agree that "they" is the best way to reference a gender-neutral person. What I'm asking is "Should we refer to them gender-neutrally, or should we use their gender, if we are hiding their identity but have revealed their gender earlier?" – quack_inc4 Apr 6 '17 at 1:36
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I see no need to eliminate gender from the pronouns, since the gender was already revealed.

There is a reason not to eliminate gender from the pronouns: it makes the text harder to follow.

Why tie yourself up in knots if it's not needed?

On the other hand, if you don't want to reveal a user's gender to the readers, then don't disclose it in the first place.

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If it bothers you to use he and may bother your readers to see they, it's a formal paper so you can always go legalistic on it:

User 1 (hereinafter "1") posted updates 5 times in Foo, but only when talking about bars. 1 does not seem to like bars very much, so this choice may indicate 1's distaste for the Foo language.

The reasoning there is incredibly spotty. It's much more likely that terms of abuse are rendered in the beloved local dialect than in the prestige dialect used elsewhere. The formatting should be fine for the pronoun conscious, though.

Alternatively, you can use capital letters in place of numbers, if that might cause trouble in the paper.

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    So rather than use a style the author likes and may bother the reader; or a style the reader likes but may bother the author, you suggest a style that I suspect both the author and the reader are highly likely to detest? Is this really an improvement? – Peter Shor Apr 6 '17 at 2:22
  • @PeterShor A quote from 'I'm an ordinary man' in My Fair Lady "Make a plan and you will find she has something else in mind, and so rather than do either, you do something else that neither likes at all." – BoldBen May 4 '17 at 7:30
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How is ‘don't say "User 1 likes bananas, in survey 17, User 1 responded that", say "User 1 likes bananas, in survey 17, they responded that..."’ different from “Don’t use the correct form when you could make sure it's wrong”?

It wasn’t broke in the first place and the only reason to ‘fix’ it is to accommodate a problem that hasn’t arisen.

If ‘he’ and ‘she’ don’t work, please remember no pronouns are actually needed in these examples; just care.

User 1’s… choice may indicate (a) distaste for the Swoglish language.

There, even the (a) isn’t needed, and it could as easily have been User 1’s

User 2… might be using Swoglish to practice, instead of to communicate with (that user’s) online subscribers.

There, (that user’s) is even less necessary, and it could as easily have been User 2’s

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@quack_inc4 I understand what you're getting at: using a gender neutral pronoun is a way of protecting participants' privacy. I'm struggling with the same question in writing my dissertation.

I've asked friends who have experience with this, and it seems that the recommendations are:

  1. Structure the sentence such that pronouns are unnecessary.
  2. Use they/their as singular.
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    There isn't a question of privacy here, though - the gender is explicitly stated as part of the revealed information. – Lawrence May 4 '17 at 7:44

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