She, he and they trending on Twitter: Polyvocal pronouns and more-public messages
Merkhofer, Elizabeth Monica
This paper uses ethnographic and quantitative methods to examine the use of standard, third-person personal pronouns and 'singular they' for a specific referent in a Twitter corpus. The corpus, collected from the Twitter Search API, includes 9031 Tweets from the then-trending hashtag `#oomf' [one of my followers]; the 1139 of these found to contain singular masculine-, feminine- or 'singular they'-type third-person pronouns linked to #oomf are studied here. Previous studies find generic-related features of the referent to differentiate 'singular they'. These features, however, do not account for pronoun variation among the tokens in these data, only some of which include additional gendering of referents and which are consistently of a referent type considered by previous research to be unlikely with 'singular they'. Rather, a pattern emerges at the corpus level: two texts including 'singular they' are disseminated by many users, while Tweets containing standard pronouns accumulate only small-scale social action. It is suggested that through users' social actions, 'singular they'-including Tweets become polyvocal and comparatively more public. The association of 'singular they' with low individuation and prototypicality emerge here at the level of discourse and social behavior, rather than predicting the use of a certain pronoun in sentences.
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