Authors use she/them pronouns less often

(CHAPEL HILL, NC) According to a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, more and more people are using “they/them” pronouns to signal their gender identity, but writers avoid using “they” to refer to a single person.

In addition to “he” or “she”, “sie” can be used as a preferred pronoun. However, researchers from Carolina found that authors use “she” less often in online stories and articles, and are more likely to use the person’s name instead.

“Our language systems are constantly changing, and in this study we examined whether the relative novelty of the singular ‘sie’ could lead to suppression of its use,” said Jennifer Arnold, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. who led the study published in Glossa on February 16: psycholinguistics.

Arnold studies the psychology of language and how the brain processes the words we use. In a recent study, she and her students showed that declaring preferred pronouns increases the likelihood that others will understand singular “they” in the future.

“She” is often used by people who are non-binary, meaning that a person does not identify exclusively as male or female. You can opt for the gender-neutral pronoun.

Pronouns are some of the most commonly used words in the English language, connecting sentences with the previous context. For example: “Demi Lovato is performing on Saturday. They will sing their greatest hits.”

Finding the correct pronouns of a person is considered a mark of respect. Proponents say media coverage can affect how the public talks and thinks about gender issues, placing a heavy responsibility on the media for using pronouns correctly.

For the study, Arnold and her co-authors reviewed digitally published articles by 27 authors between 2015 and 2020 that contained references to someone identifying as non-binary or genderqueer and using s/he pronouns.

For comparison, the research team found articles by the same authors that contained people using he/she/him pronouns. They analyzed how often the same authors used she/she pronouns (rather than a name or description) to refer to a person versus he/him and she/her pronouns to refer to a person , and found that she/they pronouns were used less frequently.

“These are writers who chose to write about people using non-binary pronouns, so they’re clearly okay with that idea,” Arnold said. “It’s just that, statistically, they use it less often than binary pronouns.”

The motivation behind the less frequent use of non-binary pronouns has several possible explanations, according to Arnold.

“One thing we know about writing as opposed to speaking is that it gives people the opportunity to revise and reflect on what is said,” she explained. “It’s possible that this is a conscious choice by the author, or it could be an unconscious bias. The guidance from many style manuals is to use appropriate pronouns and be clear so that choice is not mandated.”

Arnold and her co-authors predict that as non-binary references become more prevalent, authors can rely on readers to understand this form and become more proficient in its use, which will result in “they” being similar commonly used like he and she.

The results also initiate future directions for research on how pronouns are used in speech.

“We want to study the same question in spoken language because those are more automatic decisions,” Arnold said. “While speaking, there is less time to think because the social constraints of the language prevent us from pausing mid-sentence.”

Other authors include Jiefang Li at UNC-Chapel Hill; Atziri Marquez at Swarthmore College and Genevieve Franck at Mount Holyoke College.


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