Culminating Project Title
Date of Award
Culminating Project Type
College of Liberal Arts
James H. Robinson
Keywords and Subject Headings
language change, generic pronoun, linguistic study, singular they
Societal change is apparent to us in every regard: from government to language. In the area of language, use of pronouns has changed over the centuries and continues to do so today. After decades of passive adherence to a prescriptive rule condemning the use of the pronoun they as a singular form, evidence suggests that this form is accepted by society, consciously or unconsciously, as an alternative for the generic pronoun he.
Prescriptivism has served to shape the English language through the intents, likes, and dislikes of grammarians who have sometimes formed grammar rules to their own liking rather than looking at the actual language for reference. The pronoun they came from Old Norse and has been used with singular antecedents since early times. This usage of the pronoun was condemned by grammarians. A summary of usage manuals has demonstrated how views have changed from the early 1900s up to the present day towards the usage of the pronoun they with singular antecedents. Studies of compositions by university students writing about "the educated person" and studies of language on television programs demonstrate the growing usage of the pronoun they with singular antecedents. Today, even some government regulations address gender equity by mandating the elimination of the use of titles like "fireman" and "craftsman" along with the generic pronoun he.
In this study, a survey was distributed to high school and university teachers, who are society's purveyors of norms, asking for participants to accept sentences, which contain the pronoun they with a singular antecedent, or to suggest improvements. The results of this survey confirm a general acceptance of using the pronoun they with singular antecedents. While overall singular they was accepted 40.97% of the time, high school teachers, traditional purveyors of society's norms, accepted the usage 60% of the time and the age group 33-43, the largest age group in the survey, accepted this usage 54.13% of the time. In spite of a prescriptive rule condemning its usage, singular they continues to survive.
Anderson, Philip Roger, "A Linguistic Study of the Third Person Generic Pronoun: Singular They" (1995). Culminating Projects in English. 4.