Blog 4: End of the year report

Over the course of the past academic year, I was lucky to have a unique opportunity to conduct research with Dr. di Gennaro on a subject of gender and linguistic reforms.  Over my entire college career, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences; I developed my skills as a researcher, gained useful experience of persevering for a long period of time, as well as achieved a feasible result with the project itself.

In my opinion, it is safe to say that our project was successful. At the beginning of the year, we set out to provide insight into which of the linguistic reforms in the past were successful and why. Our specific focus was devoted to the concepts of visibility vs inclusivity in the language. Also, considering that English is a naturally gendered language, we wanted to find out if the prescriptive rules of grammar still have their influence over the way people use language today.

We have developed and distributed a survey focused on different linguistic reforms: usage of generic “they” vs  “he” or “she”, use of neologisms, and gender-neutral labels. Upon analyzing the result, we found the following:

1. Most participants (around 70-80% in each question presented) are okay with using neutral terms like “their”, “they” and “themselves” when it is used broadly and gender is not specified in a sentence.

2. There was an average distribution of preference towards generic “him or her”, “he” or “she or he”; the same happened for use of generic “they” when gender was specified. For example, since Jane is generally considered to be a girl’s name, a fewer number of respondents liked using “they” to refer to Jane.

3. The concept of “visibility” vs “inclusivity” proved not to be important when it came to terms for gendered professions and vice versa. That is, there was no visible preference towards “congressperson” vs “congressman/congresswoman”,  “waiter” and “waitress” vs “server”.

4. However, we discovered the overall dislike of neologisms like “waitron”(instead of “waiter”), “ze” as a general pronoun, and Mx. instead of Ms, Mrs, and Mr.  About 80 %  of respondents said that they “would never use that phrase”.

This has been a very rewarding experience, and I would gladly do it again. I had a wonderful mentor, working with whom has been a profound pleasure. I learned exactly how to conduct academic research, how to predict the possible bias when answering certain types of questions, as well as how to analyze quantitative data. It has been a wonderful experience, and I’m happy to have been selected to participate.


Blog #3

For the last few months, professor di Gennaro and I were gathering data by the means of a survey distribution. Total response count was 93 competed surveys, and we are currently analyzing the data collected.

In early December, we began creating a four-part survey with total number of 40 questions. It was aimed to find how do people use language in regards to prescriptive vs descriptive rules of grammar, as well as participants’ knowledge of them.

Part 1 consisted of 10 questions, which were complete with the pronouns that may or may not appear correct to a participant. For example, Q10 was “If Jane calls, tell  them to call me back”. There were four possible responses: “I would never use this phrase”, “I’m not likely to use this phrase”,  “I’m somewhat likely to use this phrase” and “I’m very likely to use this phrase”. The aim was to find out if the linguistic reform of swithcing from a masculine pronoun “he” to ‘they” was succesfull.

Part 2 also consisted of 10 questions, in which out aim was to use the gender neutral words in a sentence (like “server”, “congressperson”, etc) in order to find out whether participants would use it in every day life. A possible issue became apparent after the initial data analysis: since our goal was to get raw data without participants being influenced by presuppositions or knowledge what exactly are we looking for, it may have not been clear in certain questions what exactly should one pay attention to. That is, a question ‘Do you know how to contact your congressperson?” may have been interpreted by participants as a question aiming at understanding of their daily lives (meaning, not everyone would ask that) rather than at finding out if people use gender neutral terms in relation to traditionally gendered nouns.

Part 3 was aimed at knowledge of prescriptive rules, and also consisted of 10 questions. A good example would be Q25 “Who were you talking to?”, which is not constructed according to the prescriptive rules of grammar which state that it’s incorrect to end a sentense with a preposition. A preliminary data analysis revealed that there might be a possible correlation between participant’s age usage of this rule, as well as having learned English as a second language. This would, however, have to be confirmed by further analysis.

Finally, part 4 was aimed at participants’ intuitive usage of pronouns, this time without suggestions like in part 1. Here, participants had an opportunity to type in their own answers. We provided questions like Q34 “I waved at the barista but___ didn’t see me”. Here, we were trying to find out whether a participant would use “he”, “she” or “they” in order to describe somebody whose gender they don’t know.

We decided it would create  a larger margin of error if we were to include a section in which participants could explain their reasoning behind their responces. Therefore, most of the data collected is quantitative.

After all the sections were completed, the participants were given a choice if they would like to complete a demographics information. The majority (67.50%) were native English speakers, however and 32.50% being non-native. It must be noted that 85% of participants were university students (83.75% in the age group of 18-25), with only 15% not, which may have skewed our data toward a possible future conclusion that young people are more susceptible to linguistic reforms.

We have closed our survey two weeks ago (Feb 28), and began conducting the preliminary analysis. The data is still raw, and we are currently working on going through all the responses before we can begin looking for patterns.



Blog #2

Over the course of the last several weeks, my faculty advisor (Dr. Kristen Di Gennaro) and I have been working on creating a survey in Qualtrics. Currently, we are waiting on IRB to get back to us on account of the quality of our survey.

Our survey is designed to discover some of the consequences of the linguistic reforms and determine whether they have been successful. One of our questions is if participants have an awareness of the prescriptive grammar rules. After the surveys approved and completed, the next step would be to determine the reasons why some might be more inclined to change their speech patterns, while others remain more conservative when it comes to speech. The purpose is to find out if the adaptability to new rules is related to age, gender, educational level or even political views.

The survey has four parts, that is not counting the disclaimer for voluntary participation. Each section has four parts. The first block is focused on finding out what kinds of pronouns would a participant use when they have a choice. That is, they are asked to rate a sentence on a scale from “I’m very likely to use this phrase” to “I’m not at all likely to use this phrase”, with two more possible answers in between. The purpose is to find out how particular participants might be when it comes to the prescriptive grammar of pronoun usage.

The second part of the survey is designed to see whether participants are more likely to use gender-neutral terms in relation to professions or not. The third section would appear somewhat ambiguous to some participants since unless one is intensely familiar with prescriptive grammar rules (for example, a sentence can’t end with a preposition), the sentences would appear correct. This section is specifically aimed at getting the information on how much of a hold the prescriptivism has on the minds of participants.  The fourth section is fill-the-blank type, and is also aimed at the pronoun usage; however, unlike the first section, it is letting the participant input their own response in order to see if they would naturally put “they” instead of “he” or “she”. The questions are purposefully ambiguous for that reason.

Overall, we anticipate the survey to reveal thinking patterns that relate to prescriptive grammar usage. We are curious if people of older generations are less prone to adopting linguistics reforms. Yet, it must be mentioned, that one of the articles (Mucchi-Faina, Gender identity, and power inequality) that we used to preliminary research states otherwise.

Blog #1: Gender and Linguistic Reform

The purpose of my academic research project “Gender and linguistic reform: finding the formula for success” is to gather the information on the linguistics reforms of the past in American English, analyze it in relation to gender in the hope to determine which aspects of proposals are associated with favorable results.

We (myself and my research advisor, Dr. Kristen Di Gennaro) started with the gathering of information from several related sources. We have reviewed several publications in order to establish their relevance to our research. A book by A. Curzan “Gender Shifts in the History of English” provided a valuable context for how did the understanding of gender change over the centuries. Later, we focused on contemporary articles focusing not just on a broad development of English, but on artificial linguistic reforms related to gender. One of the most useful sources was “Visible or influential? Language reforms and gender (in)equality” by A. Mucchi-Faina, who provides detailed analyses of almost 20+ research studies all over the English-speaking world and their outcomes, along with the author’s conclusions. Gathering information allowed us to begin the development of our own research questions for surveys we will be conducting in the near future. We’ve drawn on methods discussed in “Personality, prescriptivism, and pronouns” by E.D. Bradley, in which he provides examples of sentence types rated by respondents in relation to whether or not the correct pronoun was used.  Our survey will contain a test on grammaticality. There will be sentences like “If someone calls me, tell them to call me back”, and the participant will be asked to determine whether or not the usage of a pronoun “they” is correct. Another type of research questions we are developing will be “fill the blank”, in which participants would be asked to put in either “he/she” or “they”.

The goal is to find out which conditions would make a linguistic reform accepted by the general population.  We hope to find out whether increasing visibility has been a more effective strategy utilized in the past by linguistic reformers, or if a concept of inclusivity (substituting he/she with they, for example, or replacing words like “the stewardess” with “the flight attendant” to make them more gender-neutral) worked better in the long run.