Singular "they": online and offline interpretation effects among L1 and L2 speakers

Open Access
Shook, Neil C
Area of Honors:
Bachelor of Science
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Carrie Neal Jackson, Thesis Supervisor
  • Samuel Mark Frederick, Honors Advisor
  • linguistics
  • sentence processing
  • pronouns
  • semantic processing
  • L2 English
  • German
While research suggests that L2 speakers rely more heavily on non-grammatical cues than L1 speakers during real-time processing (Cunnings, 2017), how referential and grammatical cues interact in L1 and L2 comprehension remains of interest. The present study investigates how the plural grammatical cue of the English singular "they" (a grammatically plural pronoun used to refer to a grammatically singular antecedent) interacts with the referential cue of its antecedent to shape L1 and L2 speakers’ online processing and final interpretations. In a self-paced reading task, L1 English monolinguals and L1 German-L2 English speakers read sentences containing either a referential (e.g., "that jogger at the intersection") or a nonreferential (e.g., "a jogger") antecedent. A second clause referred to this antecedent using a grammatically singular ("he"/"she") or plural ("they") pronoun. Following each sentence, participants indicated whether the subject was singular or plural. L1 and L2 participants showed no reading time differences for "they" vs. "he"/"she" in either referential context, suggesting that neither group had difficulty integrating the plural feature of they while reading. Interpretation responses revealed that singular "they" resulted in an increase in the proportion of plural responses compared to "he"/"she" among L1 participants only with nonreferential antecedents, suggesting that L1 participants were sensitive to an offline interaction between the grammatical cues of the pronoun and the referential cues of the antecedent. L2 participants, conversely, exhibited an increase in the proportion of plural interpretations of singular "they" with both referential and nonreferential antecedents, revealing no offline interaction between the cues. Implications for cue-based retrieval accounts of L1 and L2 language processing (Cunnings, 2017; Wagers, Lau, & Phillips, 2009) are discussed.