British Pronoun Use, Prescription, and Processing: by Laura Louise Paterson (auth.)

By Laura Louise Paterson (auth.)

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Additional info for British Pronoun Use, Prescription, and Processing: Linguistic and Social Influences Affecting ‘They’ and ‘He’

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4. In order to address these questions, the following chapter includes a corpus-based analysis of written British English. The corpus approach, which is discussed in detail, facilitates the observation and analysis of trends in epicene choice, as opposed to the analysis of individual examples. The resulting analysis brings debates on epicene choice up to date, in terms of written British English at least, and provides new data on the syntactic classification of antecedents. The analysis of corpus data will also indicate whether there is a clear epicene-elect of British English, thus neatly addressing all of the above questions.

Strahan’s results reflect much older studies in epicene production. In 1977 Green found clear trends in the use of singular they, showing that it was ‘normal usage’ for his 184 collegelevel participants (1977: 152). There is a strong body of evidence indicating that gender marking on third-person singular pronouns is salient in comprehension and affects readers’ perception of possible antecedents. The studies also indicate that generic he has a default masculine interpretation, but the same is not true for singular they, which it appears, can be processed unproblematically with singular antecedents.

As Henry VIII ascended to the throne in 1509, this change was clearly already in progress at the very start of the Early Modern English period. The significance of Nevalainen’s argument to epicene research is that the forms prescribed during the development of traditional prescriptive grammar in the late Early Modern English period were generally based on the forms used by the upper echelons of society. Based on this position Henry VIII’s pronoun choice is significant, and perhaps influenced, in some small way, the adoption of singular you.

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