Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics, emeritus, at the University of Illinois and the author of the new book What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She.
Canada’s Department of Justice currently recommends that legislators use gender-neutral language when drafting statutes because “laws that exclude references to the female gender do not promote gender equality.” Leading off their list of suggestions is a pronoun: “Use the singular ‘they’ … to refer to indefinite pronouns and singular nouns.” Other options include the phrase “he or she” or rewriting in the plural. Generic “he,” once the default legal construction, is no longer an option, which is a good thing because despite centuries of being propped up by grammarians, teachers and editors, “he” was never truly generic.
Using a masculine word to include women – what generic “he” is supposed to do in grammar and in law – was a key feature of England’s Act of Interpretation (1850) as well as Canada’s first Interpretation Act, which provided that “Words importing … the masculine gender only, shall include … females as well as males” (in the United States, the Dictionary Act – passed in 1871 – also said that masculine words could refer to women).
Courts had no trouble punishing women when the criminal code referred to lawbreakers as “he.” But judges and legislators – all of them men in the 19th century – insisted that “he” was not generic when it came to rights such as voting, holding elected office or entering a traditionally all-male profession like medicine or law.
All that has changed. Canadian women have been doctors since the 1860s, lawyers since 1892 and voters since 1918. But such achievements came without the help of the Interpretation Act’s “he-means-she” provision.
The generic “he” also kept women out of civil service jobs in Canada. A 1921 article on the history of the Ottawa civil service suggested that women’s exclusion was both grammatical and natural: “The Civil Service is for men only … The law on the subject is all in the masculine gender, which, while a purely technical point, is really founded on the primary conception of a service in which women would not have a part.”
According to the writer, the pronoun “he” in the Canadian Civil Service law was simply a nod to grammatical tradition, not to the realities of government work: “Women were not specifically excluded: they were simply not thought of being in any way eligible.” In his opinion – the anonymous writer is certainly male – what eventually put women at government desks in 1883 had nothing to do with feminism, suffrage or a sense of fairness. It was their ability to do menial office work. He put it bluntly: “They came in with the typewriter.”
Typewriters first appeared in the 1870s, and within a decade they were well on their way to becoming the office writing tool of choice. Once it became clear that women could type, and do it more cheaply than men, the Ottawa Civil Service hired them by the thousands. But even as late as 1921 women were considered temps. According to the anonymous civil service historian, “They come and go. The brighter and cleverer they are the more likely they are to get married, and it is another tradition that a married woman … shall not be in the public service.”
In fact, a new civil service bill introduced in 1924 codified the tradition of ousting married women from the civil service, and it too had pronoun trouble. In a bizarre attempt to adhere to grammatical convention, that bill used masculine pronouns for the women: “he [i.e., a civil servant] is to retire on marriage.”
During the legislative debate over this provision, the bill’s sponsor was asked whether male civil servants also had to retire when they married. He replied, matter-of-factly, “Female employees are of course compelled to retire on marriage” – no surprise there, given the previous “tradition.” The follow-up question, “Then why not say ‘she’?” brought the reply that “he” was used “for conformity” – Canadian statutes always used “he.” Apparently that was explanation enough, and the Civil Service bill – where “he” in this case meant “only she” – was quickly approved.
All that has changed. Over the past decade, singular “they” has become the statutory pronoun of choice. It’s the ultimate inclusive word: both gender-neutral and non-binary, singular “they” refers to men, women and persons who are trans or gender-nonconforming. And it’s idiomatic: English plural pronouns can and regularly do function as singulars – see, for example, the editorial or royal “we.” More to the point, plural “they” has doubled as a singular pronoun in careful, edited writing since the 14th century. In contrast, the second person plural pronoun “you” has only functioned as a singular since the 17th century, when it began driving out singular “thou” and “thee.”
This means singular “they” is hundreds of years older than the perfectly standard singular “you.” And language authorities – dictionaries, grammar and style guides – are quickly recognizing that singular “they” is standard English. Both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have added the non-binary sense of singular “they” to existing definitions of gender-neutral “they,” and the latest edition of the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual recommends the gender-inclusive singular “they” both in clinical settings and for scholarly writing.
In addition, singular “they” has been sweeping the awards. Merriam-Webster declared non-binary singular “they” its Word of the Year for 2019, and the American Dialect Society named singular “they” the Word of the Decade.
There are alternatives to singular “they.” Some people prefer a coined pronoun such as “zie” or “hir.” Or no pronoun at all. But whatever option you choose, remember that generic “he” is pretty much stake-through-the-heart dead. Singular “they” is used by people who want to promote gender inclusivity, and it’s used as well by those who have never given the issue of gender much thought at all. Anyone who still objects to singular “they” on grammatical grounds should consider what the linguist Fred Newton Scott said 135 years ago: “The word they is being used as a pronoun of the common gender every day by millions of persons who are not particular about their language, and every other day by several thousands who are particular."
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