Singular they in English as a foreign language

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A much-debated issue in English is the use of “epicene pronouns”, i.e. third-person singular pronouns of indeterminate gender. Previous studies have shown that singular they is the most common epicene in L1 English, but this pronoun has not received much attention in studies of L2 use. The present study extends previous research by examining variation between L2 groups in the distribution of epicene pronouns, focussing particularly on the use of singular they and how it is affected by three features of the antecedent: definiteness, notional number, and gender expectancy. The data originate in an elicitation experiment, which was completed by 338 university students of English from eight L1 backgrounds. The results show that singular they was most frequently used with notionally plural antecedents, whereas it was least common with gender-stereotyped antecedents. The study also disclosed variation between learners: In some L1 groups, they was used frequently with all types of antecedents, suggesting that these learners perceive singular they as a singular pronoun in its own right. In other groups, singular they appeared to function mostly as a modification of the plural they, as the pronoun was only frequent with notionally plural antecedents. The findings have important implications for language teaching.

Original languageEnglish
JournalApplied Linguistics Review
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Jul 2020
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • singular they
  • antecedent individuation
  • epicene pronouns
  • EFL


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