Ashley Vandevender '11

Hometown: Nashville, TN
Major: English Literature
Senior Study Title: “Singular they: A Test for a Prescription Change”
Advisor: Dr. Sam Overstreet

Thesis Abstract

Quick grammar quiz: which of these is correct?

“Each person is entitled to his opinion.”

“Each person is entitled to their opinion.”

“Each person is entitled to his or her opinion.”

The use of singular they vs. generic he has long been a topic of debate among grammarians.

In this war of words, proponents of singular they support their arguments with historical examples such as Chaucer and Shakespeare while criticizing sexist motives and “grammatical hypocrisy.”

Proponents of the continued use of generic he as a standard pronoun or those who oppose the use of singular they cite precedent, logic and efficiency to fuel their arguments.

Ashley Vandevender ’11, who admits she has an “inexplicable obsession with grammar,” wanted to get to the bottom of the debate and determine whether singular they is a sufficient replacement for generic he.

When the English Literature major began working on her Senior Study, she started with researching articles about the topic.

“In the past 50 years or so, there has been a strong argument against generic he as a standard pronoun, because people have considered it sexist – if you say the word ‘he,’ you automatically think ‘masculine’ as opposed to ‘generic,’ i.e. that 'he' could encompass either gender,” Vandevender explained.

She decided to focus on arguments by two grammarians, Ann Bodine and Donald MacKay.

In her 1975 article “Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They,’ Sex-Indefinite ‘He,’ and ‘He and She,’” Bodine, a feminist, claims that singular they was accepted and widespread prior to the beginning of the prescriptive grammar movement in English, and the prescriptive grammarians’ attack on singular they was socially motivated.

“Bodine ultimately asserts that the definitive prescription of he as the generic pronoun does not stem from grammatical logic and precision, but rather an androcentric worldview in which a generic word is male until found to be female,” Vandevender wrote in her thesis. “This assertion has been the fuel for the strong push to eradicate what feminist linguists and grammarians consider androcentric grammar.”

In his 1980 article “On the Goals, Principles, and Procedures for Prescriptive Grammar: Singular They,” Donald McKay reports the results of a study, which was conducted in conversation with Bodine’s claim that generic he and singular they are grammatically analogous.

“MacKay asserts that if these two terms are indeed analogous and consequently interchangeable, then a transformational analysis should be conducted in order to test the costs,” Vandevender wrote. “However, rather than using a transformational experiment based on spoken usage, as a psycholinguist, he sought not only to see how a singular they transformation could affect academic writing, but also to predict how this type of prescription change could affect future language use, particularly in academic writing.”

In her Senior Study, Vandevender used a substitutive transformational method adapted from MacKay’s study to test a grammatical prescription change from generic he and all of its various forms to singular they in academic writing.

After researching historical and current conversation regarding gender pronouns, Vandevender analyzed example sentences gathered from 180 sources in nine academic disciplines. She also looked at how the use of generic he changed from 1970, when grammarians were discussing the issue, until now.

She found that a new prescription change allowing for singular they would produce too many grammatical issues.

“In 78 percent of the examples, the singular transformation did not produce any negative effects such as ambiguity,” Vandevender said. “The 22 percent negative effects that I found were more often than not overtly ambiguous – the most severe form of ambiguity. That 22 percent was too high of a percentage to suggest a change in the prescription or a rule change.”

Vandevender did, however, concede that there is clearly a need for a rule change.

“The conclusion is that a new prescription change allowing for singular they would produce too many grammatical issues, and a prescription change that advocates an alternation between he and she and all of the various forms would better resolve the generic gender pronoun issue both socially and grammatically,” she wrote in her thesis.

She admitted that she wasn’t sure what she would find when she began her research, and the overwhelming number of positive examples surprised her. She said she was especially pleased that her study “fit so nicely” with the research conducted by Bodine and MacKay.

“They were trying to predict what future language usage was like, and I got to see where they’re right and where they’re wrong,” Vandevender said. “Bodine was a feminist, but she decided that generic he was not going to work, and singular they was going to take its place. I found that generic he has predominantly faded out in academic writing, but he or she has taken its place – both (grammarians) built a case that the use of singular they would stall in writing because of its inefficiency grammatically, and I found that to be true.”

She also found that psychology, literature and anthropology were the disciplines in which there were the most problems with substituting singular they.

Additionally, she found that 73.9 percent of the sentences that were transformed included the use of he or she – the exact opposite of McKay’s study, in which 73.9 percent of the study included generic he.

“That was an interesting switch, and it indicates that language has changed over time and that we are more gender conscious in our language choices,” Vandevender said.

Dr. Sam Overstreet, professor of English, said he was impressed with his advisee’s Senior Study.

“It’s probably the best senior thesis that I’ve advised in 20 years here,” Overstreet said. “What makes it so good is that Ashley had two specific earlier studies with very clear and defined methodology that she could respond to. So the clarity of the methodology and the preciseness of the question limited the scope to something that would be manageable, and if she gathered enough data, she could develop it in great depth.”

Overstreet said he recommended that Vandevender try to shorten the thesis and submit it for publication to Language and Society, the same journal that published the Bodine and MacKay articles cited in Vandevender’s Senior Study.

Vandevender, who describes herself as “naturally prescriptivist” when it comes to grammar, said the study took her out of her comfort zone, and while the research process was tedious, she “loved the entire process of it.”

She even created a Facebook profile page devoted to her thesis, “because I consider it the longest relationship I’ve ever had,” she said, laughing.

Overstreet said that although he was familiar with the topic, he had not seriously considered the option Vandevender most favored at the end of her study, which is the alternation of he and she.

“Usually, if I’m teaching freshman composition, I am telling the students both observe gender neutrality and observe agreement between pronouns and antecedents in number, which boils down to saying ‘use he or she,’” Overstreet said. “But if that gets repetitive, then I tell them to rewrite to avoid the pronoun. Well, rewriting is laborious, so it’s an interesting study to add the alternation of he and she into the mix to seriously consider how workable would singular they be.”

Now a first-year law student at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Ga., Vandevender credits her Senior Study with helping her get a full tuition scholarship to law school.

“When I was interviewing for my law school scholarship, I was talking about my Senior Study, and one of the interviewers got really excited about it,” Vandevender recalled. “She told me that her colleague was studying gender pronoun choices of female Supreme Court justices, and for me, I salivated. I think about grammar a lot, but it surprises me when I talk about my thesis and people will be surprised in an impressed way, because they don’t think about it.”

Vandevender said her Senior Study has also been helpful in law school.

“I am currently in a legal writing class, and I will say that having created a thesis that required such a methodological process has helped me adapt to the unique legal writing style,” she said.