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Experiment Author: Adapted from STEP and used with permission of Brian MacWhinney
Participants were given sentences one clause at a time and asked to interpret the sentence. Sentences contained a definite ("teacher") or indefinite ("someone") antecedent and a pronoun, either definite ("he" or "she") or indefinite ("they"). The experimenters found that participants could read sentences with "they" as quickly as sentences with a pronoun that did match the stereotypical antecedent and faster than those where the pronoun did not match.
This finding implies that "they" can be used effectively as an indefinite pronoun where the gender of the person is unknown or unknowable. The problem with using "they" in English is that prescriptively, it is forbidden (as "they" is technically plural, and cannot be used with singular antecedents). This finding aims to point out that that does not mean people cannot understand the use of singular "they"
This experiment presents subjects with 72 trials within one single block. Each trial presents a sentence containing three clauses, one clause at a time. The experiment is self-paced, as subjects press the spacebar to move to the next clause. At the end of each sentence, subjects press 1 to indicate that they agree with the veracity of the sentence, or 2 if they disagree with the veracity of the sentence.
Foertsch, J., and Gernsbacher, M.A. (1997). In search of gender neutrality: Is singular They a cognitively efficient substitute for generic He? Psychological Science, 8, 106-111.
Original Experiment Abstract
With increasing frequency, writers and speakers are ignoring grammatical proscription and using the plural pronoun they to refer to singular antecedents. This change may, in part, be motivated by efforts to make language more gender inclusive. In the current study, two reading-time experiments demonstrated that singular they is a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he or she, particularly when the antecedent is nonreferential. In such instances, clauses containing they were read (a) much more quickly than clauses containing a gendered pronoun that went against the gender stereotype of the antecedent, and (b) just as quickly as clauses containing a gendered pronoun that matched the stereotype of the antecedent. However, with referential antecedents, for which the gender was presumably known, clauses containing singular they were not read as quickly as clauses containing a gendered pronoun that matched the antecedent's stereotypic gender.
Works Cited by the Experiment
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Bodine, A. (1975). Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: Singular "they", sex-indefinite "he", and "he or she". Language in Society, 4, 129-146.
Flanagan, A.M, & Todd-Mancillas, W.R. (1982). Teaching inclusive generic pronoun usage: The effectiveness of an authority innovation-decision approach vs. optional innovation-decision approach. Communication Education, 31, 275-284.
Foertsch, J., & Gernsbacher, M.A. (1994). In search of complete comprehension: Getting "minimalists" to work. Discourse Processes, 18, 271-296.
Fowler, H.R., & Aaron, J.E. (1983). The Little, Brown handbook (3rd ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
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Martyna, W. (1978a). Using and understanding the generic masculine; A social-psychological approach to language and the sexes. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
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Meyers, M. (1990). Current generic pronoun usage: An empirical study. American speech, 65, 228-237.
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Spencer, N.J. (1978). Can "she" and "he" coexist? American Psychologist, 33, 782-783.
Strunk, W., Jr. & White, E.B. (1979). The elements of style (3rd ed.). New York; Macmillan.
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Zuber, S., & Reed, A.M. (1993). The politics of grammar handbooks: Generic he and singular they, College English, 55, 518-530.
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