By Laura Louise Paterson (auth.)
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Extra info for British Pronoun Use, Prescription, and Processing: Linguistic and Social Influences Affecting ‘They’ and ‘He’
20 British Pronoun Use, Prescription, and Processing paradigm indicates that the framework for the modern third-person pronouns was established by this period of English development. However, the same cannot be said for the second-person forms. In Middle English the thou/you distinction was relatively simple, as the former was singular and the latter was plural, but Crystal (2004: 307) notes that this distinction was disrupted by the ‘emergence of you as a singular’, which began in the thirteenth century.
Singular they and generic he are not equal epicene candidates in terms of sentence processing and production. However, singular they does not seem able to shake the prescription that it is solely plural, and therefore cannot be coindexed with singular antecedents. The following section focuses on assessing the viability of the two primary epicene candidates, focusing in detail on each form’s syntactic agreement with different types of antecedent, and arguments over whether they cause referential ambiguity.
Whilst in (18b) no such semantic oddity occurs, yet generic he arguably influences the meaning of the sentence by indicating through gender marking that the referent is male. In both cases, singular they does not cause this problem and thus, based on the example sentences, it also appears to be the most suitable epicene for indefinite NPs. Another clear indication of they’s tolerance of different antecedents noted by Sanford et al. (2007: 373) comes from Weidmann’s (1984) discussion of the use of singular they with an indefinite singular NP.