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Some grammatical rules are more difficult than others: The case of the generic interpretation of the masculine

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In this paper we argue that the generic use of the masculine represents a grammatical rule that might be easy to learn but difficult to apply when understanding texts. This argument is substantiated by reviewing the relevant literature as well as the recent work conducted by the GREL Group (Gender Representation in Language) on the interaction between stereotypical and grammatical information in the construction of a representation of gender when reading role names. The studies presented in this paper show that the masculine form used as a generic to refer to persons of both sexes, or to persons of indefinite sex or whose sex is irrelevant, in gender marked languages is likely to be associated with its specific meaning (i.e., masculine refers only to men). This is true even though the generic nature of the masculine is a very common grammatical rule learnt at school. People may have learned this rule and may understand it, but may not readily apply it.


Dans cet article, nous présentons l’idée que l’utilisation générique du masculin représente une règle grammaticale facile à apprendre mais difficile à appliquer lors de la compréhension de textes. Cette idée est soutenue, entre autres, par les travaux effectués par le groupe GREL (Gender Representation in Language) sur l’interaction entre les informations stéréotypées et grammaticales lors de l’élaboration d’une représentation mentale du genre lors de la lecture de noms de rôle. Les études présentées dans cet article montrent que la forme masculine utilisée comme une forme générique pour se référer à des personnes des deux sexes, ou des personnes dont le sexe n’est pas connu ou non pertinent, est vraisemblablement associée à son sens /spécifique/ dans les langues à marques grammaticales de genre (càd., la forme masculine se réfère /aux/ /hommes/). Ceci est vrai alors que la nature /générique/ du masculin est une règle grammaticale usuelle apprise à l’école. La règle peut être apprise et comprise, mais est vraisemblablement difficile à appliquer.

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Correspondence to Pascal Gygax.

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Most research presented in this paper was supported by research grants from the Swiss National Foundation to Ute Gabriel and Pascal Gygax.

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Gygax, P., Gabriel, U., Sarrasin, O. et al. Some grammatical rules are more difficult than others: The case of the generic interpretation of the masculine. Eur J Psychol Educ 24, 235–246 (2009).

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