Burglars, babysitters, and persons: A sociolinguistic study of generic pronoun usage in Philadelphia and Minneapolis

Lou Ann Matossian, University of Pennsylvania


To the feminists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in their quest for legal personhood, belongs the credit for identifying language as both instrument and mirror of women's social status. Following a review of language as an issue in the U.S. woman suffrage movement, the present study documents contemporary generic pronouns in colloquial Euro-American usage. More than 1200 tokens were collected in four urban neighborhoods (Elmwood/Southwest and West Mount Airy in Philadelphia and Beltrami and Fuller in Minneapolis) by means of oral-history interviews and written questionnaires on topics of local interest. The settlement history and social networks of these four communities are presented. Statistical analysis shows that he was seldom used for epicene referents and appeared only about half the time even for masculine-generic referents. Indeed, the predominance of singular they and the near-absence of she, even for feminine-generic referents, appeared to be faits accomplis in colloquial usage. In contrast to the overtly gendered pronouns, the referential nonsolidity of singular they was conducive to pronoun switching and also explained why they was preferred for generic use even when the referent was female. Female language-users tended to avoid epicene he, and their use of singular they was also less masculine-biased than that of males. Evidence of continuing prescriptive pressure included the cross-age phenomenon of pronoun avoidance in writing when the referent was inclusive or feminine. However, correlations of age with education and occupation further suggested that a steady middle-class shift away from prescriptive "generic he" has been underway in colloquial English since at least the end of World War scII. Suggested research directions include historical study of feminist linguistic thought and sociolinguistic field observations of contemporary generic pronoun usage.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Womens studies|American history

Recommended Citation

Matossian, Lou Ann, "Burglars, babysitters, and persons: A sociolinguistic study of generic pronoun usage in Philadelphia and Minneapolis" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9727259.