The influence of linguistic and social attitudes on grammaticality judgments of singular ‘they’

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The lack of consensus on a true gender-neutral singular personal pronoun for the third person in standard English has led to many continuing attempts to reform the language to be more gender-neutral and to accurately refer to nonbinary persons. Singular they has a long history of use, but continues to draw criticism from prescriptivist commentators. Recent research has found that those who endorse more binary gender ideology tend to reject singular they more often than those who hold more egalitarian gender views. The present study directly compared the contributions of linguistic prescriptivism and sexism to speakers' judgments in order to determine whether resistance to singular they is driven more by strict adherence to standard grammar or instead by attitudes about gender which are at odds with the language itself. American English speakers rated the grammaticality of sentences containing singular they and also responded to measures of linguistic prescriptivism and hostile and benevolent sexism. Results indicate that resistance to gender-neutral language is driven by sexist (but not necessarily hostile) attitudes about gender as much as by linguistic conservatism, though both contribute to grammatical judgments. Such resistance is particularly hostile to innovations that challenge the gender binary. These results carry implications for both theories of pronoun reference and language reform initiatives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101272
JournalLanguage Sciences
StatePublished - Mar 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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