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Is it right to write “big corporations must work on their marketing strategies” in academic writing?
Our instructor said you can't use pronouns like 'their' in academic writing.

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    Have you asked your instructor to clarify the reason for this nonsensical edict? Apr 7, 2022 at 12:12
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    No-one could possibly find fault with the usage in your specific context (plural "they"). But even in the context of a singular "they" usage, I'd say your instructor is just pointlessly promoting an outdated pedantic position that never really had much going for it anyway. Apr 7, 2022 at 12:30
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    It might be time to look for a new instructor. Apr 7, 2022 at 13:58
  • I've used both the plural and singular "they" in undergrad papers in Canada, and that was about 10 years ago. No one ever made any comments on it whatsoever, positive or negative, so in my mind it was completely normal. If this rule comes specifically from the instructor giving you assignments, follow it in the assignments. If the question is more about general consensus - no, it's not general consensus, no specific pronoun is prohibited in academic writing.
    – Nomenator
    Apr 8, 2022 at 0:54
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    Sheesh, I wrote a long comment about style guides and finding ways to push back against an oppressive system and then realized the OP's use in context is totally unambiguously correct in every era to literally everyone. I'd say that instructor is deeply confused, and possibly trolling. Apr 8, 2022 at 13:00

2 Answers 2

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Your instructor probably did not give you such a general guideline. It would be foolish to do so, as your example shows. Your sentence is 100% correct in academic writing and every other kind of writing.

More likely, your instructor is advising you not to match the plural pronouns "they," "them," and "their" to singular antecedents. Here is an example:

If a person finds some money, they should try to find the owner.

Person is singular. The pronoun they is plural. People who are very strict about grammar claim that the words are a poor match. So they would say that this example contains an error. If such a person is in a superior position to you (a teacher, a boss) follow their instructions. Use singular pronouns for singular antecedents. Revise the sentence to something like this:

Someone who finds some money should try to find the owner.

You might want to know, however, that the use of "singular they" has a long history, and most people—including highly educated people—habitually use it in speech. Many academic organizations such as the APA now permit its use in academic writing.

Find out exactly what your instructor meant.

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    The only time when it is not academically correct is if it's referring to a specific, known individual. "Bob works at Company. They're working on Project." is confusing if "they" refers to "Bob".
    – forest
    Apr 7, 2022 at 21:44
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    People who insist that they cannot be singular make exactly as much sense as people who insist that you cannot be singular. (As far as I know there is nobody who makes the latter claim today).
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 7, 2022 at 22:47
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    @forest Weell, in theory we can assume Bob is male and use "he". But gender neutral "they" is just fine now -- "T. Sloane signed of on this, and they have high standards." Apr 8, 2022 at 0:48
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    @OwenReynolds "Bob" was just an example name. The point is that there are two kinds of uses of a singular they. One of those has been acceptable for centuries. The other started roughly in the 90s and is still controversial due to the confusion it can cause (many people mistakenly believe that the latter is as old as the former). The example you give is of the latter, but it's not particularly confusing due to its context. My point is not that singular they is unacceptable, just that it can be, depending on context.
    – forest
    Apr 8, 2022 at 0:49
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    @forest "They" for a known individual isn't controversial due to the confusion it can cause, it's controversial because some people actively oppose acknowledging the existence of trans people (which may include making arbitrary distinctions within their grammar), or they refuse to make even the smallest accommodation for trans people. Pronouns have always carried the risk of being confusing if there are multiple entities they can refer to, this is hardly specific to singular "they". The proper way to avoid confusion is by writing competently, not by avoiding singular "they" altogether.
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 8, 2022 at 14:58
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It is completely correct. Here are some examples of the use of the pronoun "their" to refer to "corporations" in exactly your context:

"The federal sentencing guidelines for corporations: Their development, theoretical underpinnings, and some thoughts about their future" source

… financial executives of multinational corporations, their bankers…

... firms would like to finance their foreign subsidiaries source

In general, it is common and correct to use pronouns. Indeed correct use of pronouns is essential in formal English. If you wrote "big corporations must work on big corporations' marketing strategies" (avoiding the pronoun) this is bad English.

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