Department of Linguistics
Singular they and its reflexive forms
In recent years, they pronouns have been undergoing a noted change, being used and accepted in a greater number of contexts. In particular, a growing number of speakers accept they in contexts where the referent is singular, definite, and specific (e.g., Bjorkman 2017, Conrod 2019, Konnelly and Cowper 2020). Beyond acceptability of ‘singular they’ in such contexts, this talk focuses on another dimension of variation: the form of a singular they reflexive pronouns (themself and themselves).
This collaborative research uses psycholinguistic methods to do this sociosyntactic research, gathering and analyzing acceptability data on singular they reflexive pronouns. The findings of a large scale pilot study (n>1,100) and follow-up experiment (n>225) show that the variation can be attributed to factors related to speakers’ speech communities, their ideologies, and their mental grammars.
At a broader view, this work contributes towards answering variationist sociolinguistic questions (e.g., What sorts of speakers speak “innovative” varieties and which speak “conservative” varieties?), formal morphosyntactic questions (e.g., Which nominal features of an antecedent must match those in a reflexive pronoun?), and pragmatic questions (e.g., What contextual factors influence the acceptability of various they pronouns?).