High school level essay to be exact, but I'd like to also know if Spivak pronouns could be used in papers or publications. Should I just rephrase everything using the one pronoun or singular they?

I'm not a native English speaker

  • 1
    An international audience will be confused.
    – user5645
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 10:56
  • @what Don't international audiences have Google? Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 13:15
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    Using Spivak pronouns in an article on geoformation in the Andes and expecting the readers to not perceive "ey" as some kind of printing or editing error is naive. In 25 years of reading scientific articles, from linguistics to psychology, I have never once encountered Spivak pronouns. You cannot expect a familiarity with English language gender discourse from non-native readers who are not experts in gender studies. I took many classes on gender studies and linguistics, including questions of gender aware speaking, and still hadn't heard of these pronouns before this question.
    – user5645
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 13:27
  • 2
    @LaurenIpsum Try doing a Google search on "ey". The first few pages of results are about the company Ernst & Young and "engine yards". thefreedictionary.com defines "ey" as "an island" or "egg". If the reader knows these are called "spivak pronouns" a Google search will turn them up fast enough, but how many would know that?
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 13:41
  • @what and Jay: Sorry, I worded my comment poorly. I meant that international audiences could Google "Spivak pronoun," not "ey." My assumption, which I should have spelled out somewhere, is that one wouldn't use those pronouns without explaining in a footnote somewhere on the first page what they were and what the name was, precisely because nobody is going to know what "ey" is without an explanation. Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 15:03

7 Answers 7


Personally, I use and recommend singular they.

It's good enough for - among others - William Shakespeare, is well known enough that a teacher will know what you're trying to do rather than thinking you've made a mistake, and (for my money at least) looks better on the page than alternating hes and shes.

Not to mention the fact that we live in a more-and-more non-binary world when it comes to gender issues.

  • 1
    Even though this is the case, the word "he" was used as an all-inclusive pronoun in certain contexts. It's only recently with the whole issue of political correctness and pandering to the angry people that it no longer means "any individual regardless of gender" in certain phrases. Singular they is worse than the awkward he/she usage in my books.
    – JMcAfreak
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 23:58

Scientific and other non-literary publications are usually required to employ standard English. Spivak pronouns are not standard English usage, so would most likely not be accepted by most publishers, unless the publication deals with questions of gender-neutral language specifically.

In scientific publications the master rule for style is to write clearly and concisely. The most fundamental demand is that you must not be misunderstood. Everything else has to submit to this demand. Spivak pronouns are confusing, as @Jay has explained in his answer, and therefore run counter to the basic purpose of scientific (and journalist) writing.

Most scientific associations have published recommendations for unbiased language. As far as I know, none of these include the use of Spivak pronouns, instead they recommend (quoted from Purdue's online resource on the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association):

To avoid the bias of using gendered pronouns:

  • Rephrase the sentence
  • Use plural nouns or plural pronouns - this way you can use "they" or "their"
  • Replace the pronoun with an article - instead of "his," use "the"
  • Drop the pronoun - many sentences sound fine if you just omit the troublesome "his" from the sentence
  • Replace the pronoun with a noun such as "person," "individual," "child," "researcher," etc.

Publisher acceptance aside, outside of the narrow field of gender studies I would at least explain Spivak pronouns in a footnote.

  • Yes, the key issue is that if publishers have guidelines on unbiased language, you have to follow them.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 30, 2022 at 11:24

Ask your teacher. I had one who didn't mind, and the others suggested ways to write around the problem (variously, use the "universal he," use the "universal she," alternate he and she, recast the sentence as plural).

Each teacher will have different preferences. It doesn't hurt to ask upfront.

  • 3
    Don't forget "singular they". Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 13:02
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    @Mr.ShinyandNew安宇 I didn't, but every time that comes up on this board I get into an enormous fight about it. I refuse to use that construction in my writing. I will not recommend it to anyone else. Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 15:00
  • 1
    @LaurenIpsum I feel the same about singular they, but I see it used online with such consistency that I suppose we might be witnessing a linguistic change in the making.
    – user5645
    Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 18:15
  • @LaurenIpsum I feel the same way about it, but I've sadly seen myself slipping into using it as I've been harassed for using the "universal he" approach, which I've always taken to imply inclusion of both genders (but apparently some people like to think otherwise and make a big deal of it). While I haven't seen the "universal she" approach, I'd sooner see that made a new standard than the "singular they."
    – JMcAfreak
    Commented Jun 10, 2014 at 23:56

If you are writing the essay for a class in gender studies, or if the teacher is an extreme feminist, I would say yes, go ahead and use synthetic gender-neutral pronouns. If the essay is about sexism, maybe.

Otherwise, no. Very few English speakers are familiar with any given proposed set of gender-neutral pronouns. There are dozens of such proposals out there. Many English speakers have heard of the idea, but no one proposal is widely used. When I read your question, I recalled that spivak pronouns were a proposed set of gender-neutral pronouns, but I didn't remember just what they were. (Grateful for the link, though I suppose a search for "spivak pronouns" would have turned them up fast enough.) And I'm someone interested enough in language to be active on two English language forums. I haven't taken a survey, but I'd be surprised if more than 5% of English speakers could tell you what "spivak pronouns" are or would recognize them if they saw them in text.

For most people, when they first encounter such a pronoun in your text, they will think it is a typo. I suppose after they see a few they will figure out that this is something you are doing deliberately. They will have a hard time looking it up anywhere. If someone doesn't know that the pronouns you are using are called "spivak pronouns", what would he look up? Looking up "e" with Google is not going to give useful results. I suppose they could figure out what the pronouns mean from reading the context. But at the least it will be distracting and at the worst very confusing.

This is, by the way, why I think it will be very hard for any such set of gender-neutral pronouns to become widely accepted. If you invent a new word for a new idea or invention, you can introduce that word in the context of discussing the new thing. If it's truly something totally new, people will be grasping for a word to identify it concisely rather than having to describe it every time they refer to it. Like when the cell phone was invented, you COULD say, "One of those new phones, you know, the kind that use radio waves to connect to the communications network rather than wires, and that you can carry around in your pocket". But it gets pretty tedious if every time you want to refer to the thing you have to give a 15 minute explanation. So somewhere along the line someone said "let's call them cell phones" and someone else said "let's call them mobile phones" and maybe a few other proposals, but those two have become popular. When those words were new, they only came up in the context of talking about these new devices, so it wasn't a big deal to explain them when you used them. People expected you to.

But with new pronouns ... we already have pronouns. Yes, there are some complaints about implicit sexism, but the words we have do the job. Many people see no need for new words at all, and most don't see a very large need. And pronouns are used all the time, in everything you read or write, over and over. These words don't come up in just one specific context: they come up literally EVERYWHERE. When I'm reading about a new idea or invention, I expect to have to learn some new words. When I'm reading about mundane or familiar subjects, I don't. It's annoying and distracting.

If you personally fervently believe that we should use such pronouns, I suppose you could try and see what reaction you get. If you want people to understand them, you pretty much have to include a paragraph at the beginning of your text stating that you are going to use these new pronouns and listing them. Which, again, becomes a distraction from whatever you are actually trying to say.


Always think of what is best for the particular piece you are writing. Spivak pronouns are not widely accepted, used, or even recognized. Therefore they will be distracting. Unless the distracting nature of the pronouns somehow supports the argument you are making, don't use them. As other answers have illustrated, you have more options. I personally recommend feminine pronouns no matter your identity. That choice will convey an awareness of linguistic and academic gender bias clear enough without being distracting. Mixing pronouns should only be done with care, because done poorly it can be very distracting as well.


For what it is worth,

Here in San Francisco, I see "their" being used very effectively and naturally in relevant circles


You have some good advice here already, but I wanted to add this.

Since you're writing a paper, it's considered good form to write so that you don't use personal pronouns at all anyways, by

  1. using passive voice. i.e. "The water was boiled." rather than "He boiled the water."
  2. using noun phrases instead of pronouns. i.e. "My colleague boiled the water," rather than "He boiled the water."

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