This article is about the use of plural third-person pronouns with grammatically singular, indefinite, generic antecedents in the prose of current U.S. newspapers. After a review of studies of the statistical prominence of usage patterns such as A criminal is a criminal no matter what they wear in spoken English and the presence of such patterns in written English since the gender-neutral language reform movement of the 1970s, an argument is made for why they is an effective and at times optimal choice as an epicene pronoun. Then, a systematic sampling of pronoun chains in contemporary newspapers is used to investigate the effect of such factors as quoted versus nonquoted text, writers' sex, and antecedent type on rates of they usage relative to two other epicene alternatives: historically prescribed he and currently available he or she. The results indicate that although male and female writers use they at similar rates, females use he less often than males do. The results also indicate that with lexical NP antecedents, both male and female writers exhibit lower rates of they and greater use of the disjunction he or she. This is especially true with sex-stereotyped, occupational NP antecedents, such as a CEO or a doctor. It is argued that this pattern of use in contemporary newspaper prose is because of heightened sensitivity to sexism and because of psycholinguistic factors that allow male but not female writers to see themselves included in a generic he-reference chain.
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Mark Balhorn; The Epicene Pronoun in Contemporary Newspaper Prose. American Speech 1 November 2009; 84 (4): 391–413. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2009-031
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