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A Carolina study shows that in digital publications, authors underuse “they” compared with he and she in similar contexts.

A stock image of animated figures standing on words reading out different pronouns
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More people are using “they/them” pronouns to signal their gender identity, but writers may avoid “they” to refer to a single person, according to a new study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In addition to “he” or “she,” people can use “they” as a preferred pronoun. But Carolina researchers found authors avoid using “they” in online stories and articles and are relatively more likely to use the person’s name instead.

“Our language systems are constantly changing, and in this study, we examined if the relative newness of the singular ‘they’ might lead to a suppression in its use,” said Jennifer Arnold, a professor of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts & Sciences who led the study published Feb. 16 in Glossa: 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 announcing preferred pronouns increases the chance that others will understand “they” in the singular sense in the future.

“They” is often used by those who are nonbinary, meaning a person does not exclusively identify as male or female. They may opt for the gender-neutral pronoun.

Pronouns are some of the most common words used in the English language and connect phrases with the previous context. For example, “Demi Lovato performs Saturday. They will sing their biggest hits.”

Getting a person’s pronouns right is considered a sign of respect, and advocates place a large responsibility on media for using pronouns correctly and say media coverage can shape how the public talks and thinks about gender issues.

For the study, Arnold and her coauthors reviewed digitally published articles by 27 authors between 2015-2020 that included references to someone who identifies as nonbinary or genderqueer and uses they/them pronouns.

For comparison, the research team found articles by the same authors that included individuals who use he/him or she/her pronouns. They analyzed the proportion of times the same authors used they/them pronouns (instead of a name or description) to refer to an individual versus he/him and she/her pronouns to refer to an individual and found that they/them pronouns were used less frequently.

“These are writers who have chosen to write about people who use nonbinary pronouns, so they’re clearly on board with that idea,” Arnold said. “It’s just that, statistically, they use it less often than they use binary pronouns.”

The motivation behind using names nonbinary pronouns less frequently has several potential explanations, according to Arnold.

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

Arnold and her coauthors predict that as nonbinary references become more common, writers will be able to depend on readers understanding this form and will become more practiced in using it, which will lead to “they” being used at a similar rate as he and she.

The results also lead to future directions for research on how pronouns are used in language.

“We want to study the same question in spoken language because those tend to be more automatic choices,” Arnold said. “There’s less time to reflect when you’re speaking because the social constraints of language prevent us from pausing mid-sentence.”

By Madeline Pace, University Communications

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