FOERTSCH, J., & GERNSBACHER, M. A. (1997). In search of gender neutrality: Is singular they a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he? Psychological Science.
With increasing frequency, writers and speakers are ignoring grammatical proscription and using the plural pronoun they to refer to singular antecedents. This change may, in part, be motivated by efforts to make language more gender inclusive. In the current study, two reading time experiments demonstrated that singular they is a cognitively efficient substitute for generic he or she, particularly when the antecedent is nonreferential. In such instances, clauses containing they were read (a) much more quickly than clauses containing a gendered pronoun that went against the gender stereotype of the antecedent, and (b) just as quickly as clauses containing a gendered pronoun that matched the stereotype of the antecedent. However, with referential antecedents, where the gender of the antecedent was presumably known, clauses containing singular they were not read as quickly as clauses containing a gendered pronoun that matched the antecedents stereotypic gender.