So, anyone who's written a scientific essay knows that the use of he/she/him/her, etc are frowned-upon (except where necessary)

But where does this come from? When did it achieve (near) consensus? When were the guidelines first written by a major academic body?

  • Please give an example of what you mean. Are you talking about pronouns with specific or nonspecific referents? – herisson Apr 6 '17 at 16:43
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    Like, if you were writing a review article, you'd be expected to say "in Example (1998) it was found that", rather than "in his/her study, Example (1998) found that". We're expected to erase the scientists (including ourselves) and just leave the sexless, disembodied science. When did that become a thing? – Daniel Apr 6 '17 at 16:58
  • It's been a popular trend since the 60's (in the US). By trend I mean that some of it happened before the 60's, but since then it has been more obvious, but not an overnight change. I wonder what the current style guides say, if they mention it at all (I'm pretty sure that they encourage or at least allow a singular 'they'. – Mitch Apr 6 '17 at 17:00
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    “Example (1998) finds that…” is perfectly common; but in my experience, most with the humanities, so is “Example (1998) finds that…, but her analysis is based on…” and such things. It may be customary in some fields to avoid gendered pronouns when referring to authors (oneself or others), but it certainly isn’t universal. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 6 '17 at 17:09
  • The question was asked before [active vs passive voice in lab reports and history of scientific usage] and didn't receive an accepted answer. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 6 '17 at 17:47

I assume that the poster is referring to undergraduate science education in universities in the USA. I am a British scientist, but from reading general science news in journals like Nature I am not aware of a historic event involving “guidelines… written by a major academic body” on the use of ‘he/she’. I imagine that in today’s climate this would be covered by general sexual discrimination guidelines and, in any case, there is probably widespread cultural conformism or self-censoring. I, for one, would regard an edict on what words I or my students were allowed to use as an assault on academic freedom.

However, the question can be interpreted in a more general sense as:

“When did the change of attitude against the use of ‘he’ to cover individuals of both sexes appear in English-speaking academic science?”

The answer is, of course,


(or thereabouts).

I have a cutting in my possession, taken from Nature 309, 387 (1984) which accompanied a piece on the (British) Dunstan Committee Report on artificial insemination etc. As this is not freely available, I reproduce an edited version below:

Liberation Language

The introduction to the Dunstan report by Professor John Ziman… includes the following explanation of a now-unfashionable usage:

“The report is written in English, a language which has a common gender for statements applying to masculine and feminine, male and female, without distinction. Sometimes the grammatical form of the common gender and masculine coincide, but that is no impediment to its use. We have employed this grammatical facility because it yields a prose less cluttered and more elegant, and as readable.”


The 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style indeed addresses the singular they (http://cmosshoptalk.com/2017/04/03/chicago-style-for-the-singular-they/) but points out it is to be used when you don't know the gender of the person you're referring to to avoid the "generic he." If you can identify the authors, I would suggest following Janus's example from the humanities.

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    Please include the example in your answer. Comments might be deleted, or there may get lost in a sea of comments, users change their monikers or delete their accounts, and then nobody would understand who – Janus Bahs Jacquet is or what you are referring to. Thanks. – Mari-Lou A Apr 6 '17 at 19:55

Part of the definition of the scientific method is that the use of he/she/him/her, etc are not just frowned-upon, but forbidden except where necessary.

Igor did this or Dr Frankenstein did that might be wholly accurate, but it's not repeatable in any other laboratory.

The required form is the switch was thrown and not even the switch was thrown by Dr F… could be acceptable, unless the point of the report was to hi-light a different result when the switch was thrown by Dr F than by Igor or anyone else.

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    You seem to think that merely by the very nature of science, true scientists will leave out all pronouns in scientific publications. This isn't correct. Let me quote from Isaac Newton: "Then I looked through the Prism upon the hole, and turning the Prism to and fro about its Axis, to make the Image of the Hole ascend and descend, when between its two contrary Motions it seemed Stationary, I stopp'd the Prism, that the Refractions of both sides of the refracting Angle might be equal to each other, as in the former Experiment." – Peter Shor Jul 23 '17 at 0:22
  • Writing entirely in a passive style is considered too old-fashioned in some scientific publications now. – Simon B Jul 25 '17 at 22:33
  • Yes, Simon; of course it is and there have always been those who fancy form over function, and there has always been a difference between what is and is not capable of being replicated… How much d'you bet the vast majority of those who consider pains-taking less respectable were taught by modern teachers with plenty of theoretical training and no relevant experience? – Robbie Goodwin Jul 26 '17 at 22:53
  • "Part of the definition of the scientific method…" Really? Your source for this bizarre assertion? – David Sep 24 '17 at 14:04
  • Uh… the most basic secondary school science, David. I’m sorry and 50 years ago, every child of 11 was taught this. Are there members over, say, age 50 who don’t remember that? In Peter's example, consider what 'science' meant in Newton's day. In Simon's, ask whether the slickest style could ever matter as much as strict substance? This is supposed to be axiomatic, needing no formal definition. The real question, sadly, is when did it stop being obvious… – Robbie Goodwin Sep 24 '17 at 15:46

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