Pronoun trouble in science

Here are some quick (and hopefully, interesting) thoughts on two separate kinds of pronoun trouble that have come up in my graduate teaching recently, (1) the ever-controversial "singular they" (i.e., using "they" to denote a single person of indeterminate gender) in referring to author(s) of a scientific paper and (2) use of the first-person singular in single-authored papers.


Singular "they"

Grammarians have disagreed for decades whether (when?) it is acceptable to refer to a person of unknown gender as "they", or whether in this situation you should

  • say "he" [the 'default' gender in English] or
  • alternate haphazardly (?) between "he" and "she"
  • reword the sentence to refer to multiple people, so you can use the pronoun "they" in its plural sense. (See Wikipedia's entry on the subject for a brief introduction.)

Anne Fadiman has a whole essay on the subject (compromises between style and inclusiveness) called "The His'Er Problem" in her lovely book of essays [1], and the linguistics blog Language Log has a whole section devoted to the topic (they're OK with it).
The (rather tenuous) connection with my book is that on p. 16 of the book I wanted to say

a Bayesian would say that there was good evidence against the hypothesis: even more strongly, they could say …

but the copy editor made me change it to

Bayesians would say … they could say …

She was unconvinced by my citation of various web pages that argued in favor of singular "they". I was disappointed because the singular form feels stronger — the reader gets the impression of a single (gender-indeterminate) Bayesian analyzing data, rather than an indeterminate group of Bayesians who might not even be sitting in the same room together. (If I had known that some of the Language Loggers have published a dead-tree version of their blog entries [2], I could have used it for support.)

In classroom discussions, students often use singular "they" to refer to the authors of (single-authored) papers. Ironically (since I prefer singular "they" in my own writing), this bothers me — not because of grammar, but because I often know the authors of the articles, and using "they" for someone whose gender is (or could be) known depersonalizes them. The author is not some mysterious "they"; they (sic) are a human being, with the usual array of strengths, weaknesses, prejudices, blind spots, etc. as other human beings. Referring to the author as "they" rather than by (his/her) appropriate gender is one more barrier to putting yourself in (his/her/their?) shoes, and to seeing that you could in principle do the same kind of work — that real science is done by (reasonably) normal people.

In a more gender-related vein, I also have pronoun troubles in referring to the early work of Joan Roughgarden; Joan is a brilliant transgendered theoretical ecologist/evolutionary biologist. What pronoun should I use to refer to the person who wrote Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology (1995) [3]?

Another solution in this determinate-person-with-indeterminate-gender case, which extends to gender-uncertain foreign authors with unfamiliar names, or Anglo authors named Robin, Kim, or Lynn (or who are cited by their initials), is to avoid pronouns altogether: "Roughgarden says", although this becomes awkward when repeated too often (that's why we have pronouns in the first place).

Singular "we"

Another grammar-related, but conceptual issue: what voice should one use in a single-authored paper? There are again a variety of unsatisfactory compromises:

  • Most scientific style guides recommend against the obvious choice of first-person singular (because science is objective?)
  • It seems wrong to use the first-person plural when you're a single person: according to Mark Twain, 'Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial "we."'

Charles Van Way writes:

First is what we might call the "scientific we." It is sort of like the "royal we" used by the Queen of England and other monarchs. I find it amusing that most scientific writers will not use the word I. The justification is that most papers are written by multiple authors. Actually, use of the first person plural is very acceptable. It often allows the author to say something more simply and directly than otherwise …
Use of the third person is universal in scientific papers. There is nothing wrong with this. It is the appropriate person to use for expository prose, after all. It is not the use of the third person per se that makes writing tedious. But the third person can be used in either the active voice or the passive voice, and this makes a great difference. The passive voice is the source of much bad writing in the scientific literature.

  • In my book, and in some mathematical writing, "we" implicitly refers to the author and the reader together. On p. 16 I say "We’ll explore Bayes’ Rule and revisit Bayesian statistics in future chapters." This voice is very effective, drawing in the reader as a participant in the process, when you can make it work. Maybe it's easier in mathematics because the reader could in principle follow along with the work, doing the derivations in parallel, if they wanted to, whereas that's pretty much impossible with lab or field work.
  • The passive voice generally weakens the force of writing: my own feeling is that it's just fine (indeed preferred) in Materials & Methods sections (where you want to avoid agency), but otherwise you should avoid it when possible.
  • Rewriting everything to avoid the first person in more general ways is less ugly than substituting the passive voice, but it still reduces agency. You did the work in the paper: why not say so? (This overlaps with Larry Weinstein's discussion of agency in Grammar for the Soul [4], which you can read on Google books — scroll down to p. 32 if necessary: there's a delicate balance between taking credit, and responsibility, for your ideas and writing in a way that says "me me me".)

Still, I'd like it if we could weaken the virtual prohibition on the first-person singular in scientific writing. (If I were braver I would take steps in this direction by using it in my own single-authored papers.) It would open more options for single authors of scientific articles.

1. Fadiman, Anne. 1998. Ex Libris. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
2. Liberman, Mark, and Geoffrey K. Pullum. 2006. Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log. 1st ed. William, James & Company.
3. Roughgarden, Jonathan. 1995. Theory of Population Genetics and Evolutionary Ecology: An Introduction. Facsimile. Benjamin Cummings.
4. Weinstein, Lawrence A. 2008. Grammar for the Soul: Using Language for Personal Change. Quest Books, April 25.
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