When comparing the results for both corpora, the pattern of choice is noticeably different. Whereas the use of the variants taken separately was relatively even in the case of the social sciences corpus (ranging between 30% and 37%), in the newspaper corpus the difference in choice is more marked (ranging between 14% and 65%), with they being the most favoured option (see Figure 9-5).
Although the supremacy of they in the newspaper corpus can be explained in the light of the fact that quantifiers are the most popular type of antecedents, the data reveal that there is also a preference for the use of they with the other two types of antecedents, which makes this variant the overall preferred choice.
Figure 9-5: Social Sciences and Newspaper corpora compared
On the other hand, in the social sciences definite antecedents constitute the largest group followed by indefinite antecedents and quantifiers. Therefore, the frequencies of occurrence of the three different types of antecedents could help explain the pattern that emerges, which clearly shows that there is a strong relationship between the choice of pronoun and the morphosyntactic antecedent, and that what seems to mark the difference between the two types of written genres in terms of epicene pronominal choice is the type of antecedent that is favoured by one genre or the other.
Thus, while newspapers seem to prefer the use of quantifiers, academic writing prefers the use of definite antecedents, although this preference is not overwhelming. This leads to the argument that the choice of epicene pronominal form appears to be indirectly correlated with the type of genre.
Moreover, the different academic fields explored may reveal different preferences for the types of antecedents used and may even differ in the way they conceptualize their objects of study. For example, law and psychology usually deal with the individual, who has traditionally been imputed a higher degree of masculinity than femininity. Linguistics is more sensitive to language issues concerning not only correctness but also appropriateness. Sociology is bound to reflect social changes affecting society and so project a more egalitarian view of the sexes, etc.
So, breaking down the academic writing corpus by type of discipline may yield different and interesting results.
However, we may consider the possibility that in academic writing, which is an institutionalized and formal type of genre (although by no means homogeneous), discourse conventions in terms of certain language forms are less affected in this form of communication by general social and linguistic changes in society at large. Besides, if we take into account the fact that academic writing has traditionally been a male-dominated domain, despite the fact that more and more women are joining academia, the regular occurrence of he should not be surprising.
Newspapers, on the other hand, are expected to be more concerned with socially sensitive issues and, consequently, their editorial polices are carefully observed. Although most newspapers have their own house-style manuals that show their linguistic idiosyncrasy, special attention is generally paid to political correctness, probably in an effort not to offend their potential readers.