The use and prescription of epicene pronouns: a corpus-based approach to generic he and singular they in British English

2011-11-23T11:40:04Z (GMT) by Laura Louise Paterson
In English the personal pronouns are morphologically marked for grammatical number, whilst the third-person singular pronouns are also obligatorily marked for gender. As a result, the use of any singular animate antecedent coindexed with a third-person pronoun forces a choice between he and she, whether or not the biological sex of the intended referent is known. This forced choice of gender, and the corresponding lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun where gender is not formally marked, is the primary focus of this thesis. I compare and contrast the use of the two main candidates for epicene status, singular they and generic he, which are found consistently opposed in the wider literature. Using corpus-based methods I analyse current epicene usage in written British English, and investigate which epicene pronouns are given to language-acquiring children in their L1 input. I also consider current prescriptions on epicene usage in grammar texts published post-2000 and investigate whether there is any evidence that language-external factors impact upon epicene choice. The synthesis of my findings with the wider literature on epicene pronouns leads me to the conclusion that, despite the restrictions imposed on the written pronoun paradigm evident in grammatical prescriptivism, singular they is the epicene pronoun of British English.