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Psycholinguistics: Foertsch and Gernsbacher 1997
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. (PDF)
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".

Just, Carpenter, and Wooley 1982, Boland, Tanenhaus, and Garnsey 1990, MacDonald 1993
Beardsley, E.L. (1973). Referential generalizations. Philosophical Forum, 5, 285-293.

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.

Garnham, A. (1981). Anaphoric references to instances, instantiated and non-instantiated categories: A reading time study. British Journal of Psychology, 72, 377-384.

Garnham, A. (1984). Effects of specificity on the interpretation of anaphoric noun phrases. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 36A, 1-12.

Garrod, S., & Sanford, A. (1977). Interpreting anaphoric relations: The integration of semantic inofrmation while reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 16, 77-90.

Kerr,J.S., & Underwood, G. (1984). Fixation time on anaphoric pronouns decreases with congruity of reference. In A.G. Gale & F. Johnson (Eds.), Theoretical and applied aspects of eye movement research (pp. 110-136).

Khostoshahi, F. (1989). Penguins don't care, but women do: A social identity analysis of a Whorfian problem. Language in Society, 9, 349-367.

Kidd, V. (1971). A study of the images produced through the use of the male pronoun as the generic. Moments in Contemporary Rhetoric and Communications, 1, 25-30.

MacKay, D.G. (1980). On the goals, principles, and procedures for prescriptive grammar: Singular they. Language in Society, 9, 349-367.

MacKay, D.G., & Fulkerson, D.C. (1979). On the comprehension and production of pronouns. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18, 661-673.

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.

Martyna, W. (1978b). What does "he" mean? Journal of Communication, 28, 131-138.

Meyers, M. (1990). Current generic pronoun usage: An empirical study. American speech, 65, 228-237.

Moulton, J., Robinson, G., & Elias, C. (1978). Sex bias in language use. American Psychologist, 33, 1032-1036.

Nisbett, A.P. (1984). Winning the great he/she battle. College English, 46, 151-157.

Silvera, J. (1980). Generic masculine words and thinking. Women's studies International Quarterly, 3, 165-178.

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.

Valian, V. (1977). Linguistics and feminism. In F. Ellison, J. English, & M. Vetterling (Eds.), Feminism and philosophy (pp. 154-166). Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams.

Zuber, S., & Reed, A.M. (1993). The politics of grammar handbooks: Generic he and singular they, College English, 55, 518-530.

{Cited By}
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 antecendent 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 antecendent, 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.
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{Data Instructions}


Brian MacWhinney