Gender identity and nonbinary pronoun use

exploring reference strategies for referents of unknown gender


  • Iman Sheydaei University of Michigan



singular they, gender identity, specific-reference context, nonbinary pronoun use


This study contributes to the emerging literature on gender identity and pronoun use by exploring strategies to refer to unknown human referents. In an online survey involving mainly a university population aged 29 and below, participants were first asked to pick a potential roommate from two fictional characters with gender-ambiguous names and write short answers explaining their choice. Secondly, participants were explicitly asked what pronoun they would use to refer to an unknown human referent from a list of neopronouns in addition to singular they. The results show a strong association between participants’ self-identified gender and the gendered pronoun used. The results also show singular they is the most popular gender-inclusive pronoun for an unknown individual while pronoun avoidance strategies include repeating names and using generic nouns. Additionally, the reflexive form themself is preferred over themselves for unknown human referents, in contrast to previous research showing almost the same rate of naturalness for themselves and themself in the specific-reference context.

Author Biography

Iman Sheydaei, University of Michigan

Iman Sheydaei is a Visiting Research Investigator and Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Michigan. His current research explores the interaction of linguistic behaviour and ethnic identities, with a particular focus on Americans of Middle Eastern or North African descent. Iman’s interests include sociolinguistics, language and identity, and dialectology.


Ackerman, Lauren (2018) Our words matter: acceptability, grammaticality, and ethics of research on singular ‘they’-type pronouns. Pre-Print, PsyArXiv.

Ackerman, Lauren (2019) Syntactic and cognitive issues in investigating gendered coreference. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 4(1): 117.

Ackerman, Lauren, Riches, Nick and Wallenberg, Joel (2018) Coreference dependency formation is modulated by experience with variation of human gender. Paper presented at the 92nd Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), Salt Lake City, UT, 4–7 January.

American Dialect Society (3 January 2020) 2019 word of the year is ‘(my) pronouns,’ word of the decade is singular ‘they’ as voted by American Dialect Society. Retrieved 14 November 2020 from

Arter, Lisa Maxwell (2011) Children’s perceptions of gender as studied through pronoun use. Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University.

Baranowski, Maciej (2002) Current usage of the epicene pronoun in written English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 6(3): 378–397.

Baron, Dennis E. (1986) Grammar and Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bjorkman, Bronwyn M. (2017) Singular they and the syntactic representation of gender in English. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 2(1): 80.

Bodine, Ann (1975) Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular ‘they’, sex-indefinite ‘he’, and ‘he or she’. Language in Society 4(2): 129–146.

Borba, Rodrigo (2019) Gendered politics of enmity: language ideologies and political polarisation in Brazil. Gender and Language 13(4): 423–448.

Bradley, Evan D., Salkind, Julia, Moore, Ally and Teitsort, Sofi (2019) Singular ‘they’ and novel pronouns: gender-neutral, nonbinary, or both? Proceedings of Linguistic Society of America 4(36): 1–7.

Brown, Goold (1825) Institutes of English Grammar. New York: Samuel S. & William Wood.

Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. London: Routledge.

Calder, Jeremy (2020) Language, gender and sexuality in 2019: interrogating normativities in the field. Gender and Language 14(4): 429–454.

Conrod, Kirby (2017) Names before pronouns: variation in pronominal reference and gender. University of British Columbia Working Papers in Linguistics: Northwest Linguistics Conference 2017, Vancouver, BC, 5–7 May.

Conrod, Kirby (2018) Changes in singular they. Paper presented at the 3rd Annual Cascadia Workshop in Sociolinguistics, Portland, OR, 13–14 April.

Conrod, Kirby (2019a) Pronouns raising and emerging. Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington.

Conrod, Kirby (2019b) Nonbinary singular they in apparent time. Paper presented at New Ways of Analzying Variation 48, Eugene, OR, 10–12 October.

Curzan, Anne (2003) Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Curzan, Anne (2009) Says who? teaching and questioning the rules of grammar. PMLA 124(3): 870–879.

Davis, Jennifer, Zimman, Lal and Raclaw, Joshua (2014) Opposites attract: theorizing binaries in language, gender, and sexuality. In Lal Zimman, Jennifer Davis and Joshua Raclaw (eds) Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality 1–12. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dimock, Michael (17 January 2019) Defining Generations: Where Millennials End and Generation Z Begins. Pew Research Center. Retrieved 28 June 2021 from

Foertsch, Julie and Gernsbacher, Morton Ann (1997) In search of gender neutrality: is singular they a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he? Psychological Science 8(2): 106–111.

GenIUSS Group (2014) Best Practices for Asking Questions to Identify Transgender and Other Gender Minority Respondents on Population-based Surveys (Jody L. Herman, ed). Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

Gustafsson Sendén, Marie, Bäck, Emma A. and Lindqvist Anna (2015) Introducing a gender-neutral pronoun in a natural gender language: the influence of time on attitudes and behavior. Frontiers in Psychology 6: 893.

Hall, Kira (2021) Language in the middle: class and sexuality on the Hinglish continuum. Journal of Sociolinguistics 25(3): 303–323.

Hall, Kira, Borba, Rodrigo and Hiramoto, Mie (2021) Relocating power: the feminist potency of language, gender and sexuality research. Gender and Language 15(1): 1–10.

Konnelly, Lex and Cowper, Elizabeth (2020) Gender diversity and morphosyntax: an account of singular they. Glossa: A Journal of General Linguistics 5(1): 40.

Kosnick, Kiki (2019) The everyday poetics of gender-inclusive French: strategies for navigating the linguistic landscape. Modern & Contemporary France 27(2): 147–161.

LaScotte, Darren L. (2016) Singular they: an empirical study of generic pronoun use. American Speech 91(1): 62–80.

Leap, William L. (ed) (1995) Beyond the Lavender Lexicon: Authenticity, Imagination, and Appropriation in Lesbian and Gay Languages. Newark, NJ: Gordon and Breach.

Ledin, Per and Lyngfelt, Benjamin (2013) Olika hen-syn: om bruket av hen i bloggar, tidningstexter och studentuppsatser [Different views on hen: on the use of hen in blogs, newspaper articles and student essays]. Sprak & Stil 23: 141–174.

Livia, Anna and Hall, Kira (1997) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lopez, Artemis (7 October 2020) Tu, yo, elle y el lenguaje no binario [You, me, hir, and non-binary language]. Retrieved 19 June 2021 from

MacKay, Donald G. (1980) On the goals, principles, and procedures for prescriptive grammar: singular they. Language in Society 9(3): 349–367.

Martyna, Wendy (1978) What does ‘he’ mean? use of the generic masculine. Journal of Communication 28(1): 131–138.

McLemore, Kevin A. (2015) Experiences with misgendering: identity misclassification of transgender spectrum individuals. Self and Identity 14(1): 51–74.

Meyers, Miriam Watkins (1990) Current generic pronoun usage: an empirical study. American Speech 65(3): 228–237.

Mitchell, Felicia (1994) Student writing and pronoun reference: a study of inclusive language in practice. Women and Language 17(2): 2–6.

Murray, Lindley (1795) English Grammar. Menston, England: Scolar Press Facsimile.

Oliva, Miguel and Serrano, Maria (2016) A matter of style: gender and subject variation in Spanish. Gender and Language 10(2): 240–269.

Paterson, Laura (2014) British Pronoun Use, Prescription, and Processing: Linguistic and Social Influences Affecting ‘They’ and ‘He’. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pavlidou, Theodossia-Sola (2015) Gendering selves, gendering others – in (Greek) interaction. Gender and Language 9(1): 105–31.

Pullum, Geoffrey K. (4 December 2017a) A letter saying they won. Language Log. Retrieved 7 November 2020 from

Pullum, Geoffrey K. (6 December 2017b). Courtesy and personal pronoun choice. Language Log. Retrieved 7 November 2020 from

Richards, Christina, Bouman, Walter Pierre, Seal, Leighton, Barker, Meg John, Nieder, Timo O. and T’Sjoen, Guy (2016) Non-binary or genderqueer genders. International Review of Psychiatry 28(1): 95–102.

Sacks, Harvey (1995) Lectures on Conversation I & II. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1996) Some practices for referring to persons in talk-in interaction: a partial sketch of a systematics. In Barbara Fox (ed) Studies in Anaphora 437–485. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Strahan, Tania E. (2008) ‘They’ in Australian English: non-gender-specific or specifically non-gendered? Australian Journal of Linguistics 28(1): 17–29.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (2010) The usage guide: its birth and popularity. English Today 26(2): 14–23.

Turton, Stephen (2021) Deadnaming as disformative utterance: the redefinition of trans womanhood on Urban Dictionary. Gender and Language 15(1): 42–64.

West, Candace and Zimmerman, Don H. (1987) Doing gender. Gender & Society 1(2): 125–151.

Zimman, Lal (2014) The discursive construction of sex: remaking and reclaiming the gendered body in talk about genitals among trans men In Lal Zimman, Jennifer Davis and Joshua Raclaw (eds) Queer Excursions: Retheorizing Binaries in Language, Gender, and Sexuality 13–34. Oxford: Oxford University Press.



How to Cite

Sheydaei, I. (2021). Gender identity and nonbinary pronoun use: exploring reference strategies for referents of unknown gender. Gender and Language, 15(3), 369–393.