Singular ‘they’ as best practice

August 9, 2017

At NewKnowledge, we think a lot about how to interpret data and how to do it accurately and ethically. Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein, a linguistic anthropologist, joined our team as a Researcher in July 2017. Dr. Barchas-Lichtenstein writes here about one strategy for writing that can improve our reporting practice.

Although Merriam-Webster, the AP Stylebook, and the Washington Post all use singular ‘they’, the major academic style guides are mixed. All the same, there are two very good reasons to use it consistently in research reports. First, singular ‘they’ makes it easier to anonymize research respondents. And second, singular ‘they’ helps us avoid gender bias in our interpretation.

Whenever possible, researchers want to promise their respondents confidentiality and anonymity. But it’s nearly impossible to keep that promise when you’re working with a small sample, and harder still if your participants are known to the people funding, or reading, the report. In these cases, singular ‘they’ can really help. If about half of my respondents prefer ‘he’ and about half prefer ‘she’, using ‘they’ for everyone means it’s twice as hard to guess who said what. And using ‘they’ for everyone also helps anonymize the small group who use ‘they’ regularly, rather than either ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Anonymity isn’t the only benefit: using singular ‘they’ also helps us avoid gender bias. A few companies, particularly in tech, have stopped using gendered pronouns in job descriptions and candidate feedback for this very reason — and women already use singular ‘they’, among other strategies, to remain anonymous on the internet. The same argument holds true in research reports: if we don’t mention someone’s gender, we can avoid activating many of the stereotypes we use to judge people. As writers, we can reference gender only when it’s relevant. Why wouldn’t we do so?

Early experiments suggest that we’re onto something. For one thing, singular ‘they’ can be parsed as quickly or quicker than either ‘he’ or ‘she’ in generic contexts. In other words, it’s no more difficult to understand when we are speaking about a generic or hypothetical person. At the same time, using singular ‘they’ slows comprehension in contexts where the pronoun refers to a specific individual. But we still understand ‘they’ faster than we understand a gendered pronoun that doesn’t match our stereotype. That is, our brains find it easier to think of a specific truck driver as ‘he’ than ‘they’, but ‘they’ is still easier for us than a ‘she’ truckdriver. (The authors of the study further note: “in those few cases in which its use is considered surprising, the delays seen in comprehension are due not to the pronoun’s ungrammaticality or to uncertainty over the intended referent, but to the suspicious opacity of using a nongendered pronoun for an antecedent whose gender is presumably known.”)

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