Sunday, July 26, 2009

Praise be to the NYT On Language Column (h/t Patricia Harris)

A brief history of singular pronouns:

One tweeter asked plaintively, “Can we just accept that ‘they’ can be used as singular?” But another wrote, “I HATE it when people make improper use of plural pronouns for gender neutrality!” Several suggested writing around the problem (“Sometimes I try to alternate he and she, but bleh”). One tweet seemed to sum up the general attitude: “Damn you, 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.

If it is good enough for Chaucer it is good enough for me. I will from now on use "they" as my gender neutral singular pronoun.

1 comment:

Uncle Billy vs. Mont Pelerin said...

“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne, the' assay so hard, so sharp the conqueryinge”