Date Thesis Awarded

5-2020

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)

Department

Linguistics

Advisor

Daniel Parker

Committee Members

Leslie Cochrane

Kaitlyn Harrigan

Elizabeth Losh

Abstract

The pronouns people use, and the pronouns used to address other people are influential in the formation and perception of gender identity. It is generally accepted in the linguistics literature that English pronouns like he and she are a closed class. But this can prevent individuals who do not identify with these binary identities from having pronouns that properly reflect their gender identity. A work-around that is often pursued is to adopt the use of singular they or themself to avoid gender specification. Historically, the use of they with singular, generic antecedents originated in the fourteenth century, and the use of gender-neutral pronouns in present times is important to help prevent misgendering of individuals. However, due to the fact that the frequent morphologically similar pronoun themselves is associated with a plural third person antecedent, there is some pushback to allow its morphological neighbor themself to refer to a singular subject whose gender is either unspecified or a subject that does not identify with the pronouns “he/him” or “she/her.” Recently, themself has increased in use to combat this plurality issue. It is possible that the believed incorrect grammaticality of its use is influenced by a political agenda that does not believe in the validity of non-binary, gender nonconforming, agender, genderfluid, or other identities. This thesis examines whether native speakers of English express inherent biases that may interfere with their general understanding and perception of the grammaticality of themself in reference to a singular, non-binary antecedent. To this end, I first review the current literature on the topic and then present the results of a socio-psycholinguistic experimental study designed to better understand how college-aged native speakers of English from different socio-political groups process and interpret contexts involving singular themself. This research goes beyond traditional work on pronoun usage by combining sociolinguistic approaches with psycholinguistic experimental methods. Overall, the results of this study suggest that the use of a singular nonbinary reflexive can be normalized and easily comprehensible in our grammar, as it is not a grammatical bias that inhibits acceptance but a social bias against the non-binary identity.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

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