Traditional prescriptive grammar for English states that the epicene or gender neutral pronoun for third person singular use is he. Research into speaker perceptions has clearly demonstrated that he is not perceived as neutral. Research has also shown traditionally proscribed epicene pronouns such as he or she and singular they to be commonly used, despite the long-standing proscriptions against them. The author examines the endurance of such proscribed options through the lens of markedness theory, considering the impact of cultural values on speakers' epicene pronoun choices. Gender in language is also considered, as well as Kuryłowicz‘s 4th Law of Analogy as a means for understanding patterns of language change. Second person pronoun change is considered as a model for understanding third person pronoun changes currently underway in Modern American English. The author conducts and reports on a corpus study designed to assess the current usage of three epicene pronouns in Modern American English, namely he or she and its variant she or he; one; and singular they. The results of the study are considered in terms of medium, spoken or written, and register, colloquial, standard, or formal. The study suggests that they is generally the preferred epicene pronoun, particularly in spoken language, but that one is the preferred epicene pronoun for formal writing.



College and Department

Humanities; Linguistics and English Language



Date Submitted


Document Type





Epicene Pronoun, Corpus Study, COCA, Markedness, Language Change

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Linguistics Commons