Sex Roles, Vol. 54, Nos. 3/4, February 2006 (
Alternating Between Masculine and Feminine Pronouns:
Does Essay Topic Affect Readers’ Perceptions?
and Jennifer Shoda
Authors are routinely advised to avoid using masculine pronouns to refer to both men and
women. Some style guides recommend alternating between masculine and feminine pronouns
instead. Unfortunately, previous research with gender-neutral text indicates that readers per-
ceive alternating pronouns to be biased in favor of women. We tested readers’ perceptions of
alternating pronouns in an essay on a traditionally feminine topic, on a traditionally mascu-
line topic, and on a gender-neutral topic. There were four versions of each essay. One version
alternated between masculine and feminine pronouns, a second version used paired mascu-
line and feminine pronouns throughout the passage (e.g., “he or she”), and the remaining
two versions used exclusively masculine pronouns or feminine pronouns. Readers overesti-
mated the frequency of feminine pronouns in alternating text except when they occurred in
an essay on a traditionally feminine topic. Readers also thought alternating pronouns were
gender-biased and low in overall quality.
KEY WORDS: sexist language; alternating pronouns; generic masculine pronouns.
It has been 30 years since research began to
demonstrate that masculine constructions such as
“he” and “man” are perceived as male-biased or
as referring exclusively to men and boys (S. L.
Bem & D. Bem, 1973; Fisk, 1985; Gastil, 1990;
Hamilton, 1988; Kidd, 1971; MacKay, 1980; MacKay
& Fulkerson, 1979; McConnell & Fazio, 1996;
McConnell & Gavanski, 1994; Moulton, Robinson,
& Elias, 1978; Murdock & Forsyth, 1985; Schneider
& Hacker, 1973; Stericker, 1981; Switzer, 1990;
Wilson & Ng, 1988). Academic and professional
organizations such as the American Psychological
Association (APA, 2001), the Modern Language
Association (Gibaldi & Lindenberger, 1998), and the
American Medical Association (AMA, 1998) now
explicitly instruct authors to avoid the generic use of
masculine constructions. The dilemma writers face is
what they should do instead.
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of
Psychology, Box 30001/MSC 3452, New Mexico State University,
Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003; e-mail: email@example.com.
Style guides recommend a number of tech-
niques to help writers avoid generic use of masculine
pronouns. Unfortunately, most of the recommended
alternatives fall short of the “invisible gender neu-
trality” writers need (University of Chicago Press
Staff, 2003, p. 233). For example, many style guides
discourage the use of paired pronouns such as “he
or she” because they can be stylistically awkward
especially when used repetitively in text (AMA,
1998; APA, 2001; Dumond, 1990; Gibaldi & Linden-
berger, 1998; Miller & Swift, 1988; Spencer, 1978).
Sometimes authors can rephrase a sentence to allow
the use of plural pronouns (e.g., from “A golfer must
choose his clubs carefully” to “Golfers must choose
their clubs carefully”). However, pluralization can
change the meaning of text that refers exclusively to
a singular referent or introduce ambiguity when a
sentence contains more than one plural noun (e.g.,
“Although golf magazines recommend a number
of techniques to avoid hooking or slicing, they
each have disadvantages”). It is becoming more
acceptable to use “they” and “theirs” as singular
constructions (e.g., “To avoid slicing, a golfer must
2006 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.