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Personality, prescriptivism, and pronouns: Factors influencing grammaticality judgments of gender-neutral language

  • Evan D. Bradley

Because standard English lacks a true a gender-neutral singular pronoun, there has long been debate over how to refer to generic persons whose genders are unknown, or those who reject binary male or female identities. Singular (or epicene) ‘they’ has a long history as a pronoun to refer to individuals of unknown gender (Balhorn, 2004), and has also been adopted as a personal pronoun by those who identify as neither male nor female. Borthen (2010) argues based on a corpus study of Norwegian that, crosslinguistically, plural pronouns allow for vague reference, and that their lexical features (e.g., number, person) need not match their interpretation in context, which makes these pronouns prime candidates to be used in gender-neutral contexts. Chen and Wu (2011) contend that this is true for both singular and plural pronouns, but Borthen (2011) disputes this, arguing that the data show that for definite plural pronouns, but not singular, the antecedent need not be activated in the speaker's or addressee's mind, and thus can be inferred.

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