The bonuses of singular ‘they’: anonymity and bias avoidance

by Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein

I love singular ‘they’. Back in 2016, the American Dialect Society named it word of the yearAnd we all use it all the time. But that’s not why I’m so excited about it right now. I’m excited because it can help researchers, particularly if they’re working with qualitative data and thus with very small samples.

How so? Singular ‘they’ can help us anonymize our data.

I’ve often ended up working with small samples: focus groups or small sets of interviews. In many cases, the interviewees are known to the people funding, or reading, the research. And that makes it effectively impossible to promise research respondents any measure of confidentiality or anonymity.

In these cases, I do what I can. For one thing, I tell interviewees that while comments won’t be connected to them specifically, the powers that be do know who’s being interviewed, and they might be able to figure out who said what. I also try to present individual data points in isolation: while one comment may not give someone away, considering a few in tandem just might. And the third thing is singular ‘they’: not specifying gender provides those research respondents with just a bit more anonymity. If half of my respondents prefer ‘he’ and half prefer ‘she’, using ‘they’ for everyone means it’s twice as hard to guess who said what. (And it’s especially helpful for the folks who use ‘they’, since there are generally fewer of them.)

Even so venerable a source as the AP Stylebook accepts this usage: “A singular they might be used when an anonymous source’s gender must be shielded and other wording is overly awkward: The person feared for their own safety and spoke on condition of anonymity.”*

There’s another benefit, too: gender bias is pervasive, and getting out of the habit of specifying gender is one of the easiest ways we can avoid it. Some companies, like Asana, use ‘they’ for feedback on all job candidates for this reason.

It’s not an easy habit to change, but it just might make our world more fair.

Other fun stuff about singular ‘they’

* Lest we be tempted to take the AP Stylebook as the end-all and be-all, they also say something really strange on this subject: “Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.” This is … a bizarre assertion: everyone’s familiar with singular ‘they’ in speech. And even if they haven’t seen it in writing, they can figure it out just fine. (See what I did there?)

This post originally appeared on Everyday Linguistic Anthropology