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A prediction of generic they semantics

Dominic Schmitz

Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany

An often-discussed topic in English linguistics are the different usages of the pronoun they. While in its prototypical usage it is a third person plural pronoun, there are also several attested singular usages (cf. Conrod, 2020); the most prominent being its generic use. While there is a plethora of sociolinguistic research on generic they, there is no account of its semantics. A first such account is the aim of the present study.

In this paper, the term “prediction” does double duty. First, from a technical perspective, the semantics of generic they attestations and further pronouns (he, she, plural they, anyone, anybody) are predicted via instance vectors (Lapesa et al., 2018). Second, from a theoretical perspective, the forms of pronouns are taken to predict their meanings, following the framework of the Discriminative Lexicon (Chuang & Baayen, 2021).

Using instance vectors in a computational implementation of the Discriminative Lexicon (Baayen et al., 2019), it was shown that plural they is comprehended significantly better than generic they (p<0.001). Comparing the semantics of generic they to the semantics of the other pronouns, generic they appears to be a generic singular pronoun with remnants of plurality (cf. Table 1).

Predicting the semantics of generic they in a twofold fashion, the present findings provide not only a first account of its semantics, but also show that the Discriminative Lexicon is a framework fit to explore pronoun semantics.

Table 1. Mean similarities across pronoun semantics computed via cosine similarities. Higher values indicate higher similarities of vectors and, in turn, semantics.
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