The future is "they": The morphosyntax of an English epicene pronoun
Lex Konnelly, Elizabeth Cowper
September 2017

The search for an English singular epicene pronoun dates from at least the 1700s; more than 80 forms have been invented, none of which have taken hold. However, the singular use of they is attested since the 16th century, though limited until recently to contexts where it is bound by a quantifier, or refers to an individual whose gender is unknown or deliberately not indicated. Increasingly, however, they is used for definite animate singular referents, even overtly gendered ones. Within a realizational approach to morphology, we explore the featural consequences of this expansion in the range of they. While intuitively, this seems not to be a major change, it requires significant reorganization of English pronoun features. Interestingly, both before and after the change, they is the least marked, or default, pronoun in English. We show how singular they, before its range expands, is restricted to contexts where it spells out a bound variable, or where the default form is used to sidestep the gender system entirely. While he spells out only ANIMATE, the contrast with FEMININE leads to the insertion, at the interpretive interface, of the enhancement feature [masculine]. The increasing obligatoriness of enhancement makes the “neutral” use of he impossible. The expansion of singular they produces a different featural system. INANIMATE is marked rather than ANIMATE, and [masculine] and [feminine] are noncontrastive modifier features. Singular inanimates are referred to by it, which spells out INANIMATE, and singular animates are spelled out by the default pronoun they, or optionally by he or she. Expansion of they thus involves demotion of [FEMININE] from contrastive to modifier status, and reversal of the markedness of the animacy dimension. Interestingly, it is the only pronoun whose spellout conditions change. The subtlety of this restructuring may explain why some speakers find the change difficult to learn.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/003859
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: Under review
keywords: english gender, singular "they", grammatical features, language change, morphology, syntax
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