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I'm writing a theoretical (control theory) paper. I'm not a native English speaker and I need guidance about the following. Often, the subject of my sentences is "an agent", or "decision-maker", who is a completely gender neutral entity. A convention in the field seems to be using "she/her" to refer to this entity, to compensate that in the past it would always be "he/his". I was wondering if this remains currently true (emphasis in currently, I'm aware of this question but it's ten years old and this is a rapidly evolving subject), with the increasing usage of "they/their" as gender neutral pronouns. Should I move to this? Should I conjugate the verbs in singular or plural if I use it? It feels weird to me to use the verb in plural given that "the agent" is clearly a singular entity, but I'm aware that "they" followed by a singular verb conjugation is grammatically incorrect. Help is very appreciated.

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  • This is an English Language question. english.stackexchange.com
    – Buffy
    Dec 21 '21 at 17:05
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    I thought it was relevant to Academia because I'm asking for specific writing style regarding a particular technical terminology in some scientific fields, but fair enough.
    – J. R. C.
    Dec 21 '21 at 17:23
  • Your phrasing suggests that it is a broader question or I wouldn't have flagged it.
    – Buffy
    Dec 21 '21 at 17:31
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    I guess I wanted feedback specifically from scholars, and I assume I was conveying that by asking the question in Academia.
    – J. R. C.
    Dec 21 '21 at 17:50
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    In IT, you use "it", because usually "agents" are objects, albeit ones made from software. If there's a person involved, they're "administrators" or "users", depending on how they interact with the system.
    – nick012000
    Dec 23 '21 at 4:05
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If you are discussing a single agent, there is little downside to going with they as pronoun. Regardless of whether you are using they as singular or plural pronoun, it goes with verbs in the plural case (exactly the same as you -- we say you are, not you art when addressing one person).

However, only in rare situations sticking to she/her could be contrued as problematic. So if that's what you are used it, I don't think you need to feel obliged to change.

In the adjacent field of game theory you often have situations with two decision makers. Here it can be very useful to make one of them male and one of them female to make pronoun use unambigious.

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APA and others support singular 'they' for cases where gender is "unknown or irrelevant to the context of the usage".

Arguments that this usage is broadly incorrect seem to be outdated in terms of modern style guides (though there are of course exceptions), and short-sighted regarding the history of the use of 'they' as a singular pronoun.

In some artificial contexts it can be useful for readability to use an "Alice and Bob"-style gender assignment, where the scenario is more clear by specifically choosing characters that use different pronouns, but if you have a single genderless entity it seems most correct to use "they". There are also likely ways you can eliminate personal pronouns entirely from the writing when the entity you are describing is not truly animate, and I'd recommend that approach if you are writing under a particular style guide that does oppose the singular 'they' usage.

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    Almost all of the historical examples are used in tandem with indefinite pronouns, which are confusing as to their plurality since they can seemingly name more than one person, but grammar rules say they should be treated as singular. I don't consider those examples a good case for the modern usage of singular they, no matter what the vitriolic author in that post says. Dec 22 '21 at 12:54
  • @HiddenBabel Here's a historical example that doesn't.. (And for modern use, look no further than the Harry Potter series. Or do; you'll find it regardless.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 24 '21 at 19:37
  • @wizzwizz4 Not to argue in these comments, but the KJV translation often carefully followed the Greek and Hebrew sources that it came from, so you can't always say it's representative of English. A quick Google suggests that verse is plural in the Greek, but I haven't studied it. Look at the "he" for indeterminate gender in the very next verse. For another example, God uses "we" and "us" in Genesis because that's what the Hebrew uses, theological implications notwithstanding. For every one of these cases in the past, you could find 100 using "he" because that's what many languages did/do. Dec 27 '21 at 14:06
  • One should just admit that it's a modern invention and let me live in my stubborn ways! Dec 27 '21 at 14:07
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If you look at some other languages, like Spanish and Russian (these happen to be ones I speak, other than English), the default gender is male. The same was true in English for centuries until somewhat recently when political correctness took hold and people started writing either "she" (as if that's any better) or "they".

The problem with "they" is that it can introduce a confusion in some contexts; yes, we can have a complex rule where you either use "they" in the right context, or something like "he or she" in other contexts. However, that complicates the language for no good reason.

Personally, I think there is no problem with just using "he" all the time. It's singular, so the other grammar rules are unaffected; it's consistent with other languages where a similar dilemma exists; and it's not meant to degrade women in any way.

However, I would be happy to use a special new pronoun for this, like "ze" or whatever. Yes I know some of those pronouns have been claimed by individuals to express their unique identities - we can just pick one that's not in use already and is easy to pronounce, and stick with it.

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  • The situation is changing in Spanish too.
    – Pablo H
    Dec 23 '21 at 15:08
  • @PabloH I don't think so. Yes some people in USA think that people should say words like "latinx" but it's only people in USA who think that. In actual Spanish-speaking countries, nobody says that, to my knowledge.
    – Mr. TA
    Dec 23 '21 at 17:43
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    "Personally, I think there is no problem with just using "he" all the time." Many journals would disagree. I've edited professionally for the Springer–Nature and Elsevier families of journals, and in the sprit of inclusive language, the relevant (proprietary) style guide we use would not allow "he" as a default ("he/she" or "he or she" or "they" or "she" could be used, the last in compensation for historical use of "he," as noted in the question). Dec 23 '21 at 19:42
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    @Chemomechanics I have no doubt that the prevailing thought process today is that of hating men for some reason, including at journals' editorial boards. However, I'm not a journal editor, and I don't hate men. Also, the whole using "she" to compensate is a ridiculous notion - do we now take turns between "he" and "she" over centuries? Again, I would implore those who read this to put aside their political opinions (or rather, express them in appropriate avenues) and leave the English language alone.
    – Mr. TA
    Dec 24 '21 at 14:03
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    I don't see the problem with using a pronoun that's “been claimed by individuals to express their unique identities” – especially if the (much more widely so claimed) “he” is the alternative.
    – wizzwizz4
    Dec 24 '21 at 19:42
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The proper pronoun in English for an entity that is neither male nor female is "it."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_(pronoun) It is considered to be neuter or impersonal / non-personal in gender.

Example: The thing drifted up. It got higher. The group made a decision. Its decision was to stop.

Pronouns for persons are currently a hot topic. While newly invented pronouns are all the rage (e.g., xe), and while the politically-correct insist on using the plural "they" instead of a singular form. "It" is a better form and technically correct for something with no gender.

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    The agent has a gender, it is not an animal or thing, 'it' should not be used for people, it is seen as an insult.
    – Willeke
    Dec 23 '21 at 19:57
  • OP said: " Often, the subject of my sentences is "an agent", or "decision-maker", who is a completely gender neutral entity." In technical writing, an agent is often not a person, and if it is indeed "completely gender neutral," it must not be a person (in a traditional sense). Persons that claim to have no gender, or a gender outside of male, or female, fall into a special case. As Willeke said, in traditional usage, referring to people as "it" is considered an insult, but only so far as people traditionally claimed a gender of either male, or female.
    – pendant
    Dec 23 '21 at 21:14
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    The asker is talking about a situation where the gender of the agent is unknown and unimportant. The agent could be male, female, non-binary, whatever, it doesn't matter and isn't specified. In English, we do NOT use "it" for this situation. English does not consider the generic agent to be "genderless", but rather to be of all potential genders at once, which is why "he/she" is one way of solving the issue. The singular "they" is also acceptable, and was once ubiquitous until someone suggested we should follow latin norms of using the masculine pronoun to mean both male and female... but Dec 24 '21 at 1:02
  • Winters, can you provide a reference for "all ... genders at once"; I've never heard that. Here's a link to what I know of as standard pronouns in English (see table, Third person personal pronouns): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_English#Interrogative_pronouns -- and some history: quora.com/…
    – pendant
    Dec 26 '21 at 16:38
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This is actually one of the harder-to-argue-with uses of singular "they". In Math, if you have a statement along the lines of "For all x, P(x) is true", x is known as a "dummy variable" or "bound variable", and it wouldn't make sense to assign a gender, as x varies across a set with different genders. If we use "they" to refer to x, we are in some sense using "they" in a "singular" sense, but in another sense it's plural, as it's encompassing the entire set that x ranges over. For instance, "An agent has utility function" can be considered alternative phrasing for "All of the agents have a utility function". The latter wording can be clunky and ambiguous (for instance, is there a constant utility function that all of them have, or do they each have their own), while the former raises issues if we use plural pronouns. If you do use "they", the verb should be conjugated in the plural.

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Singular "they" (ie "they" used to refer to a single entity) is "gaining traction", is growing in adoption and acceptance.

But, because this is a change from usual(*) practice, you will meet with both acceptance and rejection. Some people (e.g. some reviewers or editors, some readers) will object. Some people are even vocal about it. :-) So perhaps you will face some criticism, but stick with your choice.

Why not go with 'it/its'? Is it because your agents are people?

As a way to ameliorate the impact of pronouns, you can try rewriting sentences to avoid pronouns where possible (e.g. joining sentences, using "get+verb", using passive voice, introducing names ("agent A"), etc.).

(*)Usual means "from a few years ago" or "from a few decades ago", depending on context and rate of generational change. :-)

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