Point of Departure - Winter 2012

The Grammarian Was a He

By Jessica Love | November 30, 2011


I was born, in 1984, into a largely girl-friendly America. At the encouragement of my parents and teachers, I raced, dribbled, debated, and problem-solved against the boys, and quite often I won. Nonetheless, for many years I remained under the distinct impression that men had more (how to express this?) personhood than did women, that women’s humanity, actual numbers notwithstanding, was something of an exception. This idea had linguistic reinforcement: there were sports and there were women’s sports, shoes and women’s shoes, toys and girl toys, Smurfs and Smurfette. There was also the generic “he.”

According to modern-day grammar books, “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun (e.g., I saw someone, but I don’t think they saw me) is incorrect, since a plural pronoun cannot describe a singular referent. And so we have settled on the generic “he.” This is, we are told, the way things have always been—good enough for Jonathan Swift or Jane Austen.

Except that what was in fact good enough for Swift and Austen was “they.” As Ann Bodine argues in her 1975 article “Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar,” prior to the 19th century, “they” was commonly—and uncontroversially—used as a generic singular pronoun. Grammarians were the ones who inserted the generic “he” into English about 200 years ago in an effort to improve the language.

Bodine is skeptical that such logical improvements are either improvements or logical. She points out that although “they” does not agree with a singular, gender-neutral referent by the single feature of number, “he” also does not agree with its singular, gender-neutral referent by the single feature of gender. “A non-sexist ‘correction,’ ” she writes, “would have been to advocate ‘he or she,’ but rather than encourage this usage the grammarians actually tried to eradicate it also, claiming ‘he or she’ is ‘clumsy,’ ‘pedantic,’ or ‘unnecessary.’ Significantly, they never attacked terms such as ‘one or more’ or ‘person or persons,’ although the plural logically includes the singular more than the masculine includes the feminine.”

That is, because the plural referent “persons” is composed of individual people (in a way that a man is not composed of a woman), “persons” is presumably more inclusive, and thus more generic, than “he.” Nonetheless, “he or she” is considered overkill (we get it already), though “person or persons” is perfectly acceptable.

In academic works, in particular, I have noticed the adoption of the generic “she,” often alternated every chapter or so with “he” to provide a truer sense of gender neutrality (or at least political correctness). And if our actual speech is any indication, most of us intuitively find the generic “he” a bit odd: “they” is stubbornly thriving. Indeed, its enduring popularity is one more way in which Swift and Austen have withstood the test of time.

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