Gender Census 2020: Pronouns

Original Tumblr post


This year’s Gender Census, aimed at everyone whose gender(s) or lack thereof are not adequately described by the gender binary of “always, solely and completely male OR always, solely and completely female”, was open from 12th February until 7th April 2020. There were 24,576 usable responses. You can see the spreadsheet of responses here.

This report will summarise the responses for the third question, regarding pronouns.

As in previous years, I asked about pronouns in two sections.

The first section is very straightforward, just one question:

Supposing all pronouns were accepted by everyone without question and were easy to learn, which pronouns are you happy for people to use for you in English?

Participants were presented with a selection of check-all-that-apply checkboxes, and if they selected “a pronoun set not listed here” they were taken to a second section where they were invited to enter all five forms of up to five sets of neopronouns, with associated verbs (singular vs. plural) and whether the set is gender-inclusive or -exclusive.


The checkbox list

This year, the top five pronouns (or lack thereof) were:

  • Singular they – they/them/their/theirs/themself – 77.5% (down 2%)
  • He – he/him/his/his/himself – 30.5% (down 0.3%)
  • She – she/her/her/hers/herself – 29% (no change)
  • None/avoid pronouns – 13.7% (up 3.4%)
  • Xe – xe/xem/xyr/xyrs/xemself – 7.4% (up 0.2%)

14.3% of participants wanted people to mix it up a bit, and 9.1% of participants were okay with any pronoun set.

In previous years I hadn’t specified verbs for singular they, only to have people assume that the “singular” in singular they refers to the verbs (i.e. “they is a nonbinary person”). This year I tried to counter that by changing the wording of the singular they checkbox option to clarify: Singular they – they/them/their/theirs/themself (plural verbs, i.e. “they are a writer”). It doesn’t seem to have made any difference to the statistics.

The most striking differences are that under-30s are more likely to go for singular they and he/him, whereas over-30s are more likely to go for she/her or no pronouns at all. Overall pronoun preferences are well-matched between age groups.

Here’s how this year’s pronoun responses fit into the bigger picture:

That’s singular they in blue at the top, holding steady at just over 75% even when the number of participants more than doubled this year, and she/her and he/him are also stable at about 30% each.

All of those other pronouns get a bit lost, so here’s the same chart with singular they, he/him and she/her removed, to give the rest a bit of room to breathe:

Most pronouns are well within a 5% margin of wobble, with the exception of ze/hir, which has been steadily declining since the Gender Census began and has dipped from 13% to 4%. I had privately wondered whether ze/hir might be more popular among the over-30s, because I remember it being the go-to neopronoun in my social circle around 10 years ago, and it is a little more popular with over-30s compared to under-30s (6% and 4% respectively).

9.1% of participants didn’t want to be referred to by he/himshe/her, or they/them. 6.3% of participants didn’t select or enter any specific pronoun set at all.

Every pronoun in the checkbox list was selected by over 4% of participants in at least one of the two broad age groups, so nothing will be removed from the pronoun list next year.


Neopronouns

The most popular neopronoun is in the checkbox list: xe/xem/xyr/xyrs/xemself, at 7.4% of participants.

For the top five typed-in pronoun sets, I’ve taken into account only the subject and object:

  • ey/em – 0.6% (142 participants)
  • ae/aer – 0.3%
  • they/them – 0.3%
  • ve/ver – 0.2%
  • ze/zir – 0.2%

The reason I don’t take into account more forms of the pronoun or whether it uses singular or plural verbs is because there is so much variation that each pronoun gets split into several sets, such that it becomes impractical to work out whether any pronoun is entered often enough that it should be added to the checkbox list. I’ve noticed a lot more variation in the possessives (possessive determiner and possessive pronoun, eg: his, hers, their, etc.) and reflexives (“[pronoun]self“), which is why I tend to leave them out when counting to find broad patterns.

As an example, let’s take a look at ey/em, the most popular neopronoun entered into the textboxes. When you include singular/plural verbs in counting, it goes from 142 to 68. If you take into account every variation in all five forms and verbs for every set beginning with ey/em, you get 18 unique sets:

  • ey/em/eir/eirs/emself (singular verbs) – 63
  • ey/em/eir/eirs/emself (plural verbs) – 35
  • ey/em/eir/eirs/eirself (plural verbs) – 14
  • ey/em/eir/eirs/eirself (singular verbs) – 11
  • ey/em/eir/eirs/emselves (plural verbs) – 3
  • ey/em/eir/eir’s/eirself (plural verbs) – 2
  • ey/em/eir/eir’s/emself (singular verbs) – 2
  • ey/em/eir/eirs/emself (any verbs) – 2
  • ey/em/eir/[blank]/[blank] (any verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/eir/eir/emself (singular verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/eir/eirs/emself / emselves (singular verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/eir/eirs/erself (plural verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/eir/eis/emself (singular verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/eirs/eirs/eirself (plural verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/er/eirs/emself (singular verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/er/ers/emself (plural verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/es/ers/eirself (plural verbs) – 1
  • ey/em/eyr/eyrs/eyrself (plural verbs) – 1

Part of why I love running this survey year on year is I get to explore which neopronoun sets have an approximate consensus on how exactly to use them. This one would be:

I’m in a coffee shop with my friend Sam. Ey is buying emself a coffee in eir reusable takeaway cup. “Is this your coffee?” the barista asks me, holding up Sam’s coffee. “No,” I reply, pointing to Sam, “it’s eirs.”

I have collected data on whether the sets are considered gender-inclusive (can be used by anyone of any gender) or gender-exclusive (can only be used by people of a particular gender), because I thought that I or someone else might be curious to find out whether there was a neopronoun rising in popularity that would be considered a truly “nonbinary pronoun”, in the way that singular they can’t due to its use as a pronoun for people whose genders are not specified. I haven’t done any statistical calculations or analysis on this, because none of the neopronouns (checkbox or textbox) are clearly climbing in popularity. When the spreadsheet of responses is published anyone who is curious can investigate.

Even when you combine every set that begins with the most popular first two forms (ey/em) it only totals 142, which is under 1% of participants, so there will be no neopronouns added to the checkbox list next year.

Fun trivia: counting by subject/object/reflexive, there were 768 different pronoun sets entered, of which 165 were entered more than once (about one neopronoun in five). That’s one neopronoun set for every 32 participants.


Overall

Of all specific pronoun sets in the checkbox list and typed in, most people (43%) went by only one set, and 33% were happy with two sets. Some examples of people going by two sets of pronouns might be:

  • A nonbinary man whose favourite pronoun set is he/him, but they/them is also correct.
  • Someone whose favourite pronouns are ze/hir, but because that set isn’t well-known ze’ll accept they/them from people who don’t know hir well.
  • A nonbinary person who was assigned female at birth and who presents in a feminine way, who hasn’t found a pronoun set she likes yet, so she’s happy to go with the pronouns that were assigned to her at birth until she finds something that feels right.

Conclusion

Singular they continues to be the most popular pronoun among survey participants, greater than the two runners up (he/him and she/her) combined. At over three quarters of participants, if you’re not sure of a nonbinary person’s pronouns, this is a good fallback.

However, since 9.1% (almost 1 in 10) aren’t into he/himshe/her, or singular they, it’s always good to ask if you can. (Don’t call them preferred pronouns, they’re just pronouns!)

The most popular neopronoun is xe/xem, at 7.4%.


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it and would like to give something back, you could increase your chances of taking part in future surveys by following on Tumblr, Twitter or the Fediverse, or subscribing to the mailing list. Alternatively, you could take a look at my Amazon wishlist.

If you’re in the UK and open to supporting a very topical cause, please do consider signing this petition calling for the UK government to add a nonbinary option to their coronavirus test order form. At the moment nonbinary people must lie to order a coronavirus test online or over the phone, which is illegal in two ways! You can also reblog this blog post by @mxactivist​.


2020-10-16