Section of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Ellesmere manuscript)

Grammar, politics, and sexism – how do you choose a generic pronoun?

If other writers are anything like me, I’m sure they get frustrated by prescriptive articles on grammatical “rules” and “mistakes” (never use adverbs/second person/passive voice!). In general, I will argue passionately for any writer’s right to experiment with and use whatever grammatical structures best suit their voice and the voices of their characters (within the bounds of readability and not promoting racist stereotypes).

But at the same time, language is a powerful tool. As storytellers, we help inform how other people see the world. So when questions of grammar intersect with deeper issues (such as the aforementioned problem of writing dialogue that promotes stereotypes), then it’s time to think harder about the grammatical choices we make.

And that’s why I find myself writing a blog post about generic pronouns (that is, what do you use to describe a person of unknown or irrelevant gender?). Hang on to your hats – it may be grammar, but it’s also a ride through history, politics, and sexism that’s likely to upturn a few things you thought you knew about the English language.

Why is everyone male, anyway?

N.B. I’m going to link repeatedly to the Wikipedia article on the singular they, although I usually prefer to use more primary sources, because as of writing the Wikipedia article is extremely well referenced, and most of the works it references aren’t available online.

Like it or loathe it, we’re all pretty used to the idea that “he” gets used as a generic pronoun – that in documents intended to cover everyone, it’s common to use masculine pronouns to cover people of any gender. When I was growing up, it was ingrained enough in the English language that until I started working on this post I’d never wondered about its origins. But, like any feature of modern English, it hasn’t always been that way.

Historically, the singular “they” actually takes precedence over “he” as a generic pronoun in English – the use of “they” dates back to at least the 14th Century, with one of its oldest recorded uses being in the first translation into English of the Bible, and another being Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Even the use of “themself” (as in, “I wish whoever sent us to pick up this rabid wolverine would come get it themself”) can be traced back to the 14th Century.

The resistible rise of the generic masculine

The rise of the generic “he” only dates back to the late 18th Century, when it began to be prescribed by grammar textbooks; one of the earliest and most widely-read examples, ironically, is A New Grammar (1745), the first book on grammar written by a woman.

The justification used for this new grammatical rule, according to Professor of English and Linguistics Dennis Baron, was based on rules regarding the “worthiness of the genders” set down in much older texts on Latin grammar, such as William Lily in 1567 (reprinted in 1765): “Where note, That the Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the feminine [sic] more worthy than the Neuter.

Latin grammar, mind you, uses gender entirely differently to English. The obsession of 19th Century grammarians with forcing English grammar to adhere to Latin rules is also reponsible for some people’s aversion to split infinitives – a rule that makes sense in Latin, where “to go” is a single word (ire), and none in English, where “to boldly go” is perfectly comprehensible).

Nonetheless, the “worthiness” rankings used by English grammarians used to describe Latin grammar suited well the 19th Century views on man’s superiority to woman – why shouldn’t the masculine gender be considered the default?

The culmination of this rise to prominence was the generic “he” passing into federal law, first in the UK in 1850“in all acts words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females. [3 Victoria ch. 21, sec. 4] – and then in the US in 1871: “words importing the masculine gender may be applied to females” [Statutes at Large, 41st Congress, session III, ch. 71, p. 431].

A win for equality?

Although the purported aim of these acts, and others passed by individual US states, was to simplify and create consistency in the language of future lawmaking, in practice the use of the generic “he” created a whole new level of confusion: which legal clauses applied to everyone?

By the letter of these laws, the answer should have been “all of them”. And that was certainly the argument used by prominent women of the day. Belva Lockwood, a lawyer from Washington, petitioned in 1881 to be admitted to the (all-male) Maryland bar on the basis that although state laws regarding the qualifications required to practise law referred only to men, the same laws also stated “that the masculine shall be held to include all genders except where such constructions would be absurd and unreasonable.”

In 1888, suffragist Anna Johnson told the chief of New York City’s Election Bureau that she had the right to vote despite the use of male pronouns in New York’s voting laws, since:

The English language is destitute of a singular personal pronoun, third person, of common gender; but usage sanctions the employment of ‘he,’ ‘him’ and ‘his’ as of common gender. Therefore under ‘he’ women can certainly register.

Strangely, though, the men in power in these cases weren’t so convinced by the wholesale inclusivity of the generic “he”. Anna Johnson claimed she had been allowed to register, but other women following her example were turned away. And the Maryland court was so keen to exclude Belva Lockwood that they threw out the whole premise of the original statute, ruling – without any apparent cognisance of hypocrisy – that “it would be ‘absurd and unreasonable’ in the exact words of the code, to apply the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’ to a woman.”

Even the entry of women into the political arena in the 20th Century was deemed grammatically hazardous. In 1916, when Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to successfully run for US Congress, the Washington Post cited “students of the Federal Constitution” warning that the masculine pronoun might prevent Rankin from being seated. It didn’t, of course.

A pronoun for everyone

These days we’ve come a ways from the 19th century view on women and men (and if it looks strange that I haven’t written “men and women” it’s worth considering why that it).

It should no longer be a radical statement to say that there is no “more worthy” gender. More than that, there is increasing recognition that gender is (and always has been) more complicated than the simplistic binary Western culture likes to insist on. There aren’t just “he”s and “she”s out there – there are “zie”s and “ey”s and “ne”s, and there have been for centuries.

And so we return to the singular “they”. Not only does “they” take historical precedent, it gives writers a simple means to write about someone of indeterminate or irrelevant gender – or non-binary gender – that doesn’t treat male as somehow more inclusive (or more “worthy”) than female, nor imply that there are only two genders to choose from (“he or she”). And it’s a term that readers are already familiar and comfortable with – regardless of the efforts of 19th Century grammarians, no one today thinks twice about a sentence like, “Who left their umbrella behind?”

Choosing your words – style and substance

In the 21st Century, the singular “they” has come back in from the cold. Its influence is on the rise; as of 2017 it is the gender neutral option championed by major style guides.

Of course, outside of major publications, writers are only as beholden to stylistic recommendations as they choose to be – as I said at the beginning of this piece, in personal and fictional writing the best grammar is that which allows a writer to express their own voice.

I hope, though, that when it comes to choosing an inclusive singular pronoun, writers will think about the impact their voices have on those who read them. The language we use – and the language we see used – directly influences the way we think about the world. To quote author Cecile Wilde: Literature goes a long way to normalising language in real life.”

They’ve got that right.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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