Advantage for men when reading 'neutral' Polish verb conjugation

Date of news: 22 March 2022

The past tense conjugation of Polish verbs indicates whether the 'you' in the sentence is a man or a woman. If it is unclear whether the 'you' is male or female, the masculine form is used by default. An experiment by linguists at the Centre for Language Studies shows for the first time that this 'neutral' form is more difficult for women to process than for men.

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In Polish, it is compulsory to mark the feminine or masculine grammatical gender for second person singular verbs in the past tense. For example, widział-a-ś tego kota or widział-e-ś tego kota. Both sentences mean ‘Have you seen this cat’. But in the first case 'a' indicates that the 'you' is a woman and in the second case 'e' indicates that the 'you' is a man. Of course, it is not always known whether the 'you' being addressed is a man or a woman. In that case, the masculine gender 'e' is always used in Polish and never the feminine gender.

Reading experiment

Do Polish speakers read more slowly if they are addressed with a gender marker which does not correspond to their own gender? Agnieszka Szuba, Dr Theresa Redl and Prof. Helen de Hoop, linguists from the Centre for Language Studies (CLS), investigated this with a reading experiment, in which 88 native Polish speakers (34 of them male) had to read a story word by word and press a button to see the next word. The time taken to press the button gives an indication of the time needed to process a word. Each story contained either verbs (second person, past tense) with a male or female gender marker or a verb without a gender marker*.

Sample story
Wyobraź sobie, że wyprowadzasz się do Norwegii na pół roku. Gdy już sprawdziłeś dojazd na lotnisko, zamierzasz pożegnać się z rodziną. Jednak w tym momencie babcia zaczyna pakować ci zapasy jedzenia do walizki.

‘Imagine that you are moving to Norway for half a year. Once you checked the transport to the airport, you want to say goodbye to your family. But in that moment, your grandmother starts to pack food into your suitcase.’


The results show that verbs with gender markers corresponding to the gender of the reader are read faster by both men and women. However, verbs with a masculine marking are more difficult to process for women than for men, and vice versa. Thus, a male subject has more difficulty when he is addressed as female, and a female subject has more difficulty when she is addressed as male.

This is surprising, because the masculine marker is also used as 'gender-neutral' in Polish for these verbs. Thus, if a writer chooses the 'neutral' masculine marking, because they do not yet know whether a man or a woman will read the text, it is just as difficult for women to cope with as it is when men are incorrectly addressed as women. With this study, the researchers provide - as far as is known - the first evidence for a male advantage in second-person masculine 'neutral' forms during language processing.

The article Are second person masculine generics easier to process for men than for women? Evidence from Polish was recently published in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.

*A so-called gerund. This is a noun derived from a verb, such as 'Cycling is only allowed on the cycle track'.