You've read your assignment, crafted a research question, and assembled (some) sources, now it's time to write! Starting a paper can feel daunting but the tips below can help you work your way through the writing process—and remember that writing is just that—a process. Writing can be thought of as recursive, involving trial-and-error. Below we will discuss Academic Style Guides, inclusive writing practices, gender-inclusive writing, and resources to help you along on your writing journey.
What is an Academic Style Guide?
A style guide is a standard of writing rules for English-language documents. You can think of it as an instruction manual for your writing with information about writing, syntax, grammar, formatting, and citation/reference requirements.
Three of the most-commonly used Academic Style Guides are:
If your are unsure about which style guide you should use, reach out to your professor. Often, the style guide will be listed in your assignment. For more information about these guides, visit our Citing Sources page.
Style Guides for Inclusive Writing
One way that writers can contribute to a culture of equity is by using inclusive writing. Inclusive language understands that language is not inherently neutral—many of the ways that we've been taught to write, speak, refer to, and think about people and events reflect societal biases. By using inclusive language, writers can show respect for individual differences and experiences. When thinking about how to address and discuss people, especially ones who hold identities that are different from yours, it is helpful to find resources authored by people from those communities about how they should be addressed. Engaging with the resources below can help your writing become more inclusive, ultimately allowing for it to be read by a larger and more diverse audience.
Many of the style guides listed below come from standards in the field of journalism. These guides discuss word choice and how language is changing with time. We have also created our own section about gender-inclusive language in the next box.
Disability Style Guides:
Guidelines on Inclusive Language and Images in Scholarly Communication contains guides pertaining to:
Linguistic justice is a view of learning where multiple expressions of diversity (e.g., race, social class, gender, language, etc.) are recognized and regarded as assets. Linguistic justice believes that culture and language are not simply additions to but, rather, critical components of education. It also raises awareness of the ways hierarchies of oppression, particular in language, limit an individuals’ or groups’ access to their full potential. In education, the unwillingness to accept multiple Englishes has led to an education system which serves those who speak and write in "Standard American English" at the expense of students who utilize other vernaculars and students of multiple literacies.
For more information, see the videos and books listed below:
Video: Film by Peter Johnston with Dr. April Baker-Bell, Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy
Video: Jamila Lyiscott, "Why English Class is Silencing Students of Color." TEDxTheBenjaminSchool
Habits of White Language (HOWL)
"To really understand what White language supremacy is exactly, and how we might decenter and counter it in our classrooms, we have to understand what the habits of White language, or HOWL, are. Their use and circulation is an important aspect of White language supremacy."
—Dr. Asao B. Inoue
Dr. Asao B. Inoue is a professor of Rhetoric and Composition in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University. In 2021, Dr. Inoue coined the term HOWL, which stands for Habits of White Language. Many groups of people have linguistic habits which might indicate anything from that group's values to ways of seeing others. Dr. Inoue argues that though habits are natural in language, issues arises when "one group’s habits get used as the standard by which all other people are judged, regardless of their own habits or their goals as students or people." Dr. Inoue identifies six habits of white language:
Habits of white language contribute to white language supremacy which operates not only in educational contexts but in social, professional, and personal spaces. HOWL, though it values the individual over all else, does not actually appreciate an individual's differences, rather, it encourages conformity which rejecting a person's creative and emotional sides. If you are an educator, teacher, or anyone in a position of power, think about how HOWL is reinforced by your student assessments, feedback, employee evaluations, and everyday communication. If you are a student, consider how HOWL manifests in your everyday communication and reception of your peers' work. Though institutions will often reinforce habits of white language, and going against these habits may have repercussions, thinking about how these habits manifest in your personal life is a great place to start.
For more information, read Dr. Inoue's "Blogbook -- The Habits of White Language (HOWL)" and follow his blog.
Video: Dr. Asao B. Inoue’s #4C19 Chair's Address
Citations: Inoue, A.B. The Habits of White Language (HOWL). 2021, July 3.
Photo by Kaz Fantone with NPR
Academic style guides agree: honoring and using a person’s correct personal pronoun is a matter of respect, and it's good style.
All three major Academic Style Guides (APA, the Chicago Manual of Style, and MLA) agree that a person’s correct personal pronouns (they, he, she, etc.) should be respected and used at all times in formal and academic writing. To determine the pronouns of someone you are writing about, refer to their biography, check social media accounts, personal websites, faculty/student profiles, or if possible, ask them what pronouns they use. Remember that it is not possible to infer a person’s pronouns just by looking at them and that some people use multiple sets of pronouns. If a person's pronouns are unknown or cannot be determined, using the singular “they” may be a solution—if you are writing in APA or MLA. For those using Chicago, the guide recommends rewriting the text in a way that does not require using personal pronouns (Chicago, 5.255). Always take care in your writing to use the correct personal pronouns.
Exercise: Try this Gender Pronouns Worksheet from SeattleU Writing Center.
Illustration by Valerie Morgan
What are personal pronouns?
A pronoun is a word that refers to a particular person, group, or thing.
Everyone has pronouns that are used when referring to them—and getting these pronouns right is not exclusively a transgender and/or non-binary issue. Historically, English offered only three personal pronouns: masculine (he), feminine (she), and the un-gendered “it." The lack of a widely-used gender neutral pronoun in English has long been criticized, since, in many instances, people default to using “he/him” when referring to a generic individual in the third person. Not only does the use of gendered he/she pronouns reinforce a socially constructed gender binary, it also contributes to the use of the masculine "he" as our default.
Since the three personal pronouns, he/she/it, do not adequately express the variety of gender expressions that have been present throughout history, some people choose to go by pronouns that more accurately reflect their gender. Sometimes, this pronoun is a gender neutral pronoun such as "they." "They" is already commonly used as a singular pronoun when talking about someone with unknown pronouns. For example, we might say, "someone left their jacket on this chair" or "they just went outside."
Using someone's preferred pronouns is not only respectful, it shows that you care and are working to create a welcoming environment for them and for others. Below is a chart that lists some of the most commonly used personal pronouns and gives examples for how to use them.
|He||He laughed||I called him||His dog barks||That is his||He likes himself|
|She||She laughed||I called her||Her dog barks||That is hers||She likes herself|
|They||They laughed||I called them||Their dog barks||That is theirs||They like themself|
|Fae||Fae laughed||I called faer||Faer dog barks||That is faers||Fae likes faerself|
|Per||Per laughed||I called per||Per dog barks||That is pers||Per likes perself|
Ze and hir
|Ze laughed||I called hir||Hir dog barks||That is hirs||Ze likes hirself|
This pronoun chart is directly based off the one created by the University of Wisconsin - Madison's Gender and Sexuality Campus Center.
Adapted from: Wamsley, Laurel. A Guide To Gender Identity Terms. NPR. June 2, 2021; Levin, Sala. How to Use Pronouns Appropriately. MarylandToday. June 28, 2021.
What is gender-inclusive writing?
Academic style guides agree on the importance of achieving gender-neutral writing, and the problem of using “he” as a universal pronoun. You have probably encountered texts where masculine nouns and pronouns have been used to refer to a subject with unknown pronouns or to a group of people that does not only include men. For example, terms and phrases such as "freshman" and "all men are created equal" were coined when only men could access higher education and political life. We know, however, that much has changed in the English language since then. Most readers no longer understand the word “man” to be synonymous with “person,” so clear communication requires writers to be more precise.
For a time, academic style guides suggested the use of “he or she” or alternating between “he” or “she” in writing. You may have seen manifest as the use of "he/she" or "s(he)." These constructions are now acknowledged as being not only clunky and awkward, but exclusionary to people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary implied by “he or she.”
Using gender-neutral language has become standard practice in both journalistic and academic writing, as you’ll see if you consult the style manuals for different academic disciplines. Gender-neutral language avoids bias toward certain genders. In other words, it avoids the use of masculine or feminine pronouns and prioritizes gender-inclusive nouns and pronouns. The singular “they,” in use since the 14th century in informal and spoken speech, is a gender-inclusive pronoun that can be used in academic writing. More on the history of singular “they” can be found at the Oxford English Dictionary’s website and Historians.org.
How can I make my writing gender-inclusive?
"Men" and words that end in a form of "-man" are prominent in the English language. See below for a chart on ways that you can replace these gendered nouns for ones that are more inclusive.
|Gendered Noun||Gender-Neutral Options|
|man||person, individual, one|
|mankind||humanity, human beings, people|
|freshman||first-year, first-year student|
|man-made||machine-made, synthetic, artificial, inorganic|
|the common man||the average person, laypeople|
|chairman||chair, chairperson, head, coordinator|
|mailman||mail carrier, postal worker, letter carrier|
|Sir (in “Dear Sir,” etc.)||Dear Editor, To Whom it May Concern, etc.|
Image from Enago Academy
Gender-Inclusive Language Checklist
Ask the following questions as you write and review your paper:
Adapted from: The Writing Center, UNC Chapel Hill, Gender-Inclusive Language.
The singular "they" in 2023
Academic Style Guides adapt slowly to changes in grammar and these guides are always in flux. To understand Academic Style Guides’ current and past positions on singular “they” as a gender-neutral unknown referent, it is important to keep in mind that Academic Style Guides do not create grammatical rules. Rather, they establish formal guidelines that follow spoken and grammatical conventions. Academic Style Guides can be slow to adopt conventions they might see as temporary. Despite the long history of the singular “they,” which mirrors the grammatical evolution of singular “you,” some style guides have waffled on sanctioning its use.
As of 2023, all three major guides (APA, MLA, and Chicago) acknowledge the ubiquity of singular “they” for use with an unknown referent in informal writing and speech. However, only one of the three guides, the 7th Edition of APA’s Style Guide, fully endorses the use of singular “they” as “a generic third-person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the context of usage” (APA, 120). MLA, which leaves grammar largely up to the discretion of the author, neither endorses nor prohibits the use of singular “they” in this sense. As a result, it is acceptable in MLA Style. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) has a particularly complicated history with singular “they” as a gender-neutral unknown referent. In the 1993 edition, it endorsed “they/their” in this sense (Chicago, 13th Ed. 2.98). However, this was removed from subsequent editions. Though CMOS acknowledges the ubiquity of this usage, it continues to prohibit its use and instead recommends rewriting the sentence in some way that eliminates the need for a pronoun. For more on the history of singular “they” and the Chicago Manual of Style, take a look at this 2018 article written by Cai Fischietto on IU Libraries’ website.
Further readings on gender-inclusive writing
Trans Journalists Association's Style Guide
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Writing Center's Gender Inclusive Language Handout
Further readings on the singular pronoun "they"
Merriam-Webster's Words at Play Blog Post: The Evolution of the Singular "They"
American Dialect Society's Word of the Decade: Singular "They"
IU Libraries 2016 Blog Post by Cai Fischietto: Academic Style Guides on the Singular Pronoun "They"
Gendered Pronouns and Singular "They" by OWL at Purdue Writing Lab
Further readings - General
A Guide on How Gender-Neutral Language Is Developing Around the World by Miriam Berger - The Washington Post
Gender-Inclusive / Non-Sexist Language Guidelines and Resources - University of Pittsburgh
Writing Tutorial Services (WTS) offers students one-on-one help with any phase of the writing process—from brainstorming to revising the final draft. When you visit WTS, you'll find a tutor who is a sympathetic and helpful reader of your prose.
WTS tutors can benefit IU Bloomington students with any writing background on any type of academic writing. WTS can help undergraduate and graduate students to:
WTS has a number of online style guides available, to help you with most of the classroom writing assignments you'll be expected to complete as a student.