Between the 28th July and the 2nd August, Carmen Dayrell and I represented CASS at the 3rd Sino-UK Summer School of Corpus Linguistics. The summer school was organised by Beijing Foreign Studies University and was hosted at the Weihai campus of the University of Shandong, China. A research symposium followed the summer school on the 3rd August where we presented our research to representatives from both universities. The research symposium gave us a taste of how corpus linguistics is used in a different culture and we heard papers on a range of different topics, such as Alzheimer’s research, work on translations, Chinese medicine, and analyses of media discourse.
Our summer school sessions introduced students to corpus linguistics and gave them an overview of the discipline’s development within a UK context. We also discussed the range of projects ongoing at CASS and foregrounded the interdisciplinary focus of the Centre’s work. After the formal lectures, we ran hands-on sessions demonstrating how to use Graphcoll and CQPweb and conducted seminars using material from the Climate Change and Discourses of Distressed Communities projects to test the students’ frequency, keywords, and concordance analysis skills. The students really engaged with the sessions and were particularly taken with Graphcoll. They enjoyed doing the practical sessions, which they said were different to how they usually learned. Everyone in the classroom worked really hard and asked great questions that showed how interested they were in Lancaster’s tools.
Weihai is an absolutely beautiful place. The university sits with a sandy beach on one side and a mountain on the other. Because of this, Weihai campus is considered to have good Fung Shui. The place itself was described as a small city by those who live here, but ‘small’ is relative when compared to cities the size of Lancaster. Carmen and I enjoyed our time in China (despite a long journey involving flight cancellations and a trip to a Beijing hotel in the middle of the night) and loved seeing how well the students took to corpus linguistics and the materials that we prepared for them. The trip was a great success and we look forward to future collaborations between Lancaster and Beijing Foreign Studies University.
Historically, in British English at least, if you didn’t know someone’s preferred gender it was considered grammatically correct to use he to refer to them, even if they might be female. Based on the justification that ‘the masculine includes the feminine’, this means that all of the following would be considered fine examples of English usage:
The driver in front is swerving like he is drunk.
A scientist is a fountain of knowledge; he should be respected.
Any student wishing to answer a question should raise his hand.
Everyone should consider his own family when choosing how to vote.
When you picture the people referred to in these scenarios, were any of them women? Or, to put it another way, were any of them any identity other than ‘male’? Evidence from psychological experiments has shown that the pronoun he (in all its forms) evokes a male image in the mind. Its use as a ‘generic’ pronoun, in contrast to what grammarians of old seemed to think, actually makes it harder to read and process sentences with stereotypically feminine referents (i.e. A childminder must wash his hands before feeding the children.).
So if you don’t want to go around assuming that all the world is male by default, what do you do? Luckily, there is a solution to this problem: if you don’t know a person’s gender identity, you can use the pronoun they to refer to them. There may be a mental screech of brakes here for those of you who were taught that they is a plural pronoun, but actually, it’s more versatile than that. Try using they for he in all of the sentences above. When thinking about the scientist or the driver, was there suddenly more than one? No. Indeed, singular they has been shown not to interfere with mental processing in the way that generic he does. I used it in the first sentence of this post and I’ll bet you didn’t even notice it. (Go on. Check.)
For those of you still not convinced, the use of singular they is widespread in spoken and written English. It’s highly likely that you use the form yourself without even thinking about it. In British Pronoun Use, Prescription and Processing (Palgrave 2014) an analysis of this type of pronouns demonstrates that singular they is ubiquitous in British English. If you still need more convincing, here’s a link to an extremely favourable review of that study just published in Language and Society.