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On Gender-Accurate Language

There’s a pretty interesting article in the Times about the “controversy” over gender-accurate language (scare quotes are because there isn’t really a controversy, just a handful of very irrational and vocal people that think masculinity is the ultimate definition of the human).

Anyways, it turns out that the use of masculine pronouns as a stand-in for humanity in general is not an ancient phenomenon—at least not in the English language:

Traditionalists, of course, find nothing wrong with using he to refer to an anybody or an everybody, male or female. After all, hasn’t he been used for both sexes since time immemorial? Well, no, as a matter of fact, it hasn’t. It’s a relatively recent usage, as these things go. And it wasn’t cooked up by a male sexist grammarian, either.

If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.

The idea that he, him and his should go both ways caught on and was widely adopted. But how, you might ask, did people refer to an anybody before then? This will surprise a few purists, but for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine. Nobody seemed to mind that they, them and their were officially plural. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, writers were comfortable using they with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because it suggested a sexless plural.

Paradoxically, the female grammarian who introduced this he business was a feminist if ever there was one. Anne Fisher (1719-78) was not only a woman of letters but also a prosperous entrepreneur. She ran a school for young ladies and operated a printing business and a newspaper in Newcastle with her husband, Thomas Slack. In short, she was the last person you would expect to suggest that he should apply to both sexes. But apparently she couldn’t get her mind around the idea of using they as a singular.

In other matters, though, Fisher was eminently reasonable. Ever since English grammars began appearing in the late 1500s, for example, they were formed on the Latin model (the very word grammar originally meant the study of Latin). Fisher strongly condemned this classical bias and said that English suffered when it was forced into a Latin mold. She not only defended English against claims of inferiority but also said its lack of inflections and declensions (or, as she wrote, “needless perplexities” and “peculiarities”) was an advantage — a heretical view in its time. What’s more, she used plain words, calling a noun a “name” and an auxiliary verb a “helping verb.”

But alas, in swapping he for they, Fisher replaced a number problem with a gender problem. Since the 1850s, wordies have been dreaming up universal pronouns (thon, ne, heer, ha and others), but attempts to introduce them into the language have all flopped. “Among the many reforms proposed for the English language by its right-minded, upstanding and concerned users,” the linguist Dennis E. Baron has written, “the creation of an epicene or bisexual pronoun stands out as the one most often advocated and attempted, and the one that has most often failed.”

Meanwhile, many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars, never mind the grammarians. In fact, so many people now use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it. R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has written that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English: “The process now seems irreversible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already finds the singular they acceptable “even in literary and formal contexts,” but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) isn’t there yet.


  1. Skip wrote:


    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  2. Theophilus wrote:

    I found it interesting that Fisher should expand the masculine to involve both genders if she’s so interested in legitimizing English over and against Latin. The French language, rooted in Latin, has no concept of gender-neutrality in language. All nouns must be masculine or feminine, and if both are present, the masculine plural pronoun is always used. My understanding is that the other Romance languages are the same. Sticking with “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun would seem to be a strike against Latin, or at least its more closely related derivatives.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  3. Deve wrote:


    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 1:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Parrot wrote:


    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  5. Andy Alexis-Baker wrote:

    Latin has neuter.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink
  6. Alan Rutherford wrote:

    As much as I’d like to believe this article, it only mentions Chaucer and doesn’t bother to cite any historical examples. The obvious one that comes to mind is the Authorized King James Version of the Bible [1611]. It consistently uses “he” for a universal singular pronoun. For example, “for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matt 7:8). To say that “they” was used “for centuries” ignores the KJV Bible, which was a pretty important and perhaps influential piece of literature in its day.

    The greek pronouns in this verse are singular masculine, but Jesus’s statement here was clearly inclusive of females. I don’t know whether the KJV’s translators were following convention or trying to stay true to the original Greek; my point is, Anne Fisher didn’t singlehandedly introduce this rule to English in 1745.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I think the real point is not the prior to Fisher all language was inclusive, merely that there were other ways in which literature was produced in relation to this grammatical problem.

    And the article also seems to mention “Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope” as well.

    Newspaper articles rarely use footnotes. I suppose its possible that the author made it all up, but I’d have to see evidence to make me view it with immediate suspicion.

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  8. Dees wrote:

    “There isn’t really a controversy, just a handful of very irrational and vocal people that think masculinity is the ultimate definition of the human.”

    Because that’s not a straw man.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 6:31 am | Permalink
  9. Theophilus wrote:

    Have to go with Dees on this one. There certainly are the antifeminists who are being ideological rather than logical, but there are also some good reasons to keep the original, singular, masculine usages in our Bibles. Simply using the original masculine singular can create interpretive problems when both genders really should be included, but moving to the plural to avoid the gendered reference can distort the distinction between personal and corporate, including in some places where that actually might be significant. I think that given the sensibilities of modern English speakers, the gender-neutral plural is fine, but I would still like the original masculine singular to be noted in the footnotes. Swapping numerical accuracy for gender accuracy alone isn’t the best solution in some areas.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  10. Alan Rutherford wrote:

    The article’s central assertion is that Fisher introduced “he” as a universal pronoun. It states that pronouns were inclusive until she wrote New Grammar in 1745. That’s clearly not accurate. I’m not calling for footnotes or alleging that the authors made this up, just suggesting that it would strengthen and enrich the article to quote at least one example from literature (such as Chaucer).

    Byron, Austen, et al wrote after Fisher, so their usage of “they” only illustrates that it never died out, but that’s not central to the article’s premise.

    I’ve always advocated inclusive pronouns. It just bugs me when journalists reduce a complicated issue to a simple story.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  11. Alan Rutherford wrote:

    Clarification: inclusive pronouns for people!

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Just to enrich things a bit, here are some examples of the kind of usage the article is talking about:

    — Shakespeare: and every one to rest themselves betake’
    — Jane Austen: I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly;
    — W. H. Auden: it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy;
    — Shakespeare: ’tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech;
    — W. M. Thackeray: a person can’t help their birth
    — G. B. Shaw: no man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed;

    - From Merriam Webster

    All this to say, using “they” as a universal singular pronoun is not bad English whatsoever, nor is it grammatically problematic. Strangely then, it seems to me that the only reason for rejecting a grammatically-appropriate gender-accurate pronoun in favor of a male one would be…ideological.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  13. Alan Rutherford wrote:

    The article is weak, but arguments against using “they” are weaker. It’s funny that opponents of “they” get hung up on the number problem; “you” has had to do double-duty for both singular and plural since the 17th century!

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

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