What’s up with calling a woman “a female”? A look at the parts of speech of “male” and “female” on Twitter .

This is something I’ve written about before, but I’ve recently had several discussions with people who say they don’t find it odd to refer to a women as a female. Personally, I don’t like being called “a female” becuase its a term I to associate strongly with talking about animals. (Plus, it makes you sound like a Ferengi.)  I would also protest men being called males, for the same reason, but my intuition is that that doesn’t happen as often. I’m willing to admit that my intuition may be wrong in this case, though, so I’ve decided to take a more data-driven approach. I had two main questions:

  • Do “male” and “female” get used as nouns at different rates?
  • Does one of these terms get used more often?

Data collection

I used the Twitter public API to collect two thousand English tweets, one thousand each containing the exact string “a male” and “a female”. I looked for these strings to help get as many tweets as possible with “male” or “female” used as a noun. “A” is what linguist call a determiner, and a determiner has to have a noun after it. It doesn’t have to be the very next word, though; you can get an adjective first, like so:

  • A female mathematician proved the theorm.
  • A female proved the theorm.

So this will let me directly compare these words in a situation where we should only be able to see a limited number of possible parts of speech & see if they differ from each other. Rather than tagging two thousand tweets by hand, I used a Twitter specific part-of-speech tagger to tag each set of tweets.

A part of speech tagger is a tool that guesses the part of speech of every word in a text. So if you tag a sentence like “Apples are tasty”, you should get back that “apples” is a plural noun, “are” is a verb and “tasty” is an adjective. You can try one out for yourself on-line here.

Parts of Speech

In line with my predictions, every instance of “male” or “female” was tagged as either a noun, an adjective or a hashtag. (I went through and looked at the hashtags and they were all porn bots. #gross #hazardsOfTwitterData)

However, not every noun was tagged as the same type of noun. I saw three types of tags in my data: NN (regular old noun), NNS (plural noun) and, unexpectedly, NNP (proper noun, singular). (If you’re confused by the weird upper case abbreviations, they’re the tags used in the Penn Treebank, and you can see the full list here.) In case it’s been a while since you studied parts of speech, proper nouns are things like personal or place names. The stuff that tend to get capitalized in English. The examples from the Penn Treebank documentation include “Motown”, “Venneboerger”,  and “Czestochwa”. I wouldn’t consider either “female” or “male” a name, so it’s super weird that they’re getting tagged as proper nouns. What’s even weirder? It’s pretty much only “male” that’s getting tagged as a proper noun, as you can see below:

maleVsFemalePOS

Number of times each word tagged as each part of speech by the GATE Twitter part-of-speech tagger. NNS is a plural noun, NNP a proper noun, NN a noun and JJ an adjective.

The differences in tagged POS between “male” and “female” was super robust(X2(6, N = 2033) = 1019.2, p <.01.). So what’s happening here?  My first thought was that it might be that, for some reason, “male” is getting capitalized more often and that was confusing the tagger. But when I looked into, there wasn’t a strong difference between the capitalization of “male” and “female”: both were capitalized about 3% of the time. 

My second thought was that it was a weirdness showing up becuase I used a tagger designed for Twitter data. Twitter is notoriously “messy” (in the sense that it can be hard for computers to deal with) so it wouldn’t be surprising if tagging “male” as a proper noun is the result of the tagger being trained on Twitter data. So, to check that, I re-tagged the same data using the Stanford POS tagger. And, sure enough, the weird thing where “male” is overwhelming tagged as a proper noun disappeared.

stanfordTaggerPOS

Number of times each word tagged as each part of speech by the Stanford POS tagger. NNS is a plural noun, NNP a proper noun, NN a noun, JJ an adjective and FW a “foreign word”.

So it looks like “male” being tagged as a proper noun is an artifact of the tagger being trained on Twitter data, and once we use a tagger trained on a different set of texts (in this case the Wall Street Journal) there wasn’t a strong difference in what POS “male” and “female” were tagged as.

Rate of Use

That said, there was a strong difference between “a female” and “a male”: how often they get used. In order to get one thousand tweets with the exact string “a female”, Twitter had to go back an hour and thirty-four minutes. In order to get a thousand tweets with “a male”, however, Twitter had to go back two hours and fifty eight minutes. Based on this sample, “a female” gets said almost twice as often as “a male”.

So what’s the deal?

  • Do “male” and “female” get used as nouns at different rates?  It depends on what tagger you use! In all seriousness, though, I’m not prepared to claim this based on the dataset I’ve collected.
  • Does one of these terms get used more often? Yes! Based on my sample, Twitter users use “a female” about twice as often as “a male”.

I think the greater rate of use of “a female” that points to the possibility of an interesting underlying difference in how “male” and “female” are used, one that calls for a closer qualitative analysis. Does one term get used to describe animals more often than the other? What sort of topics are people talking about when they say “a male” and “a female”? These questions, however, will have to wait for the next blog post!

In the meantime, I’m interested in getting more opinions on this. How do you feel about using “a male” and “a female” as nouns to talk about humans? Do they sound OK or strike you as odd?

My code and is available on my GitHub.

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5 responses

  1. I’d rather be called “a female linguist” than “a woman linguist”, since the latter sounds like a 19th-century man’s disbelief that a woman can be a linguist. But simply saying “a female” sounds to me like the speaker doesn’t even believe I’m human. That’s why Ferengi do it; part of what codes them as unpleasant is that their sexism is worse than human sexism. Or at least human sexism in the world of Star Trek. Twitter, and Youtube comments, appear to be full of Ferengi.

    That said, I think we need to start using “a male linguist” [and snowclones: a male surgeon, a male CEO] more, because without that, “a female linguist” is still uncomfortably othering.

  2. Very interesting analysis, thanks for sharing! I once (many years ago) asked a group of women in science what word they preferred. At the time, I was just in the habit of never using the word “female” (Mostly for the Ferengi reason…) but I wanted honest feedback. That is when I learned about the use of “female” as an adjective was okay, and in some cases preferred, by that group of women. Since that time, I’ve notice examples of women using female as a noun, and that has sounded doubly weird to me.

    So I try to respect everyone’s own use of words, but for me, referring to humans as male or female (used as nouns) sounds weird to me now, so I just don’t do it. I’m also trying to get better at asking for preferred pronouns, but many times I forget.

  3. Pingback: Can what you think you know about someone affect how you hear them? |

  4. I find it very odd to be called “a female”. I am more than just my reproductive parts, and I’m not an animal. I’m perfectly fine with “female linguist”, as an adjective. But as a noun, I much prefer “woman”. I’m somehow not very surprised that “a female” is used more often than “a male”, since we all know that “male” is the default that doesn’t even need to be mentioned, and “female” is therefore the remarkable exception (ha!). Looking forward to seeing what your analysis shows.

  5. Pingback: Are “a female” and “a male” used differently? |

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