Why am I so passionate about this? I have no idea.
I believe in it so much that in my college English classes I wrote research papers on it. Just to show the instructors they were wrong.
Yes, I found an essay I wrote about it...it's just copied and pasted from a Word document; sorry for the weird layout issues.
The Epicene Debate: The (Mis)use of ‘They’ as a Third Person Gender Neutral Singular Pronoun in English
Grammarians and linguists (as well as a host of others) have debated the question of the epicene pronoun for hundreds of years; is the use of the word they as a singular third person gender neutral pronoun in the English language acceptable? The (mis)use of this word has been a constant battle in the domain of language and linguistics for centuries, and is ongoing to this day.
Traditional grammarians, also known as prescriptivists, have “the belief that the grammar of a language should lay down rules to which usage must conform.” (OED, 2008) They believe that because a pronoun takes the place of a noun, in order for it to be clearly understood by the reader (or interlocutor), the correct pronoun must be used, and that pronominalization relies on co-referentiality with the noun in question. Descriptivists on the other hand believe “that the descriptive part of linguistics is fundamental” (OED, 2008), meaning grammars should describe what actually goes on in a language, rather than try to set down rules for the speakers to follow.
As Stanley (1978) puts it, the real question remains today: “while native speakers of English have consistently uses singular they for the indefinite pronouns, at least since the Middle English period, why have the grammarians during those centuries pushed the pseudo-generic he as the “correct” pronoun?” (p.806)
The Oxford English Dictionary (2008) lists they as both “A pronoun of the third person plural, [referring to] The persons or things in question, or last mentioned” and “Often used in reference to a singular noun … applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’)”. It also says that they has been used as a gender neutral pronoun (in limited fashion) since the 15th century. Yet in the 18th century, grammarians officially objected to the use of they as an epicene pronoun, “on the grounds that it violated number concord”, and proposed that the use of he as a gender neutral pronoun would suffice, “despite the fact that it violates gender concord, a requirement the logical-minded prescriptivists were apparently willing to waive, [and so the use of he] has become the approved construction”. (Baron, 1981, p.83) In 1850, there was actually an Act passed by British Parliament which ordered “that in all acts, words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females…unless the contrary as to gender and number is expressly provided”, meaning the word he would legally mean he or she, unless it was specified about whom they were speaking, thus making the use of generic he a legal decree. (Baron, 1981, p.83-84)
Contrary to common belief, the “incorrect” usage of they is not relegated only to the uneducated. Phyllis Randall (qtd in Meyers, 1990) places singular they users in the company of Austen, Mill, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. Over the years, Meyers herself has collected “quite a number of examples of singular they from the speech and writing of highly educated Americans, including United States senators, judges, university presidents, physicians and linguists”. (p. 229)
Students at a Minnesota University are required to write essays within their degree plan in order to determine their candidacy for their degree. Miriam Watkins Meyers (1990) studied these essays in order to determine pronoun usage among students. The participants had a minimum of 2 years of college or University education, and the group consisted of male and female candidates. She noticed that in answering the question “What is an educated person?”, “a large number (48%) of the writers in the sample took other approaches than ones requiring decisions on generic pronoun use…It seems likely that some writers consciously avoided the third generic singular approach, where issues of consistency, inclusivity and style confound even the most skilled writer.” Meyers found that in order to avoid making decisions on generic pronoun use, students employed strategies such as using no pronouns in their essay at all, or pluralizing the subject in order to be able to use they as a pronoun. Students used the generic he, singular they, he or she type treatments, including she or he and s/he, the generic feminine she, and the indefinite one. Other approaches included employing no pronouns at all, and pluralisation of the subject. Meyers concludes: “This study documents what many observers of current English language usage have suspected to be true: singular they is well established in the public writing of adult Americans.” She goes on to mention that in an exploratory study, she has noticed that the singular they is much more prevalent in the writing of schoolchildren than in the writing of the older generation. (p.231-4)
In a study done by William Green (1977), college students at Georgia State University also had trouble with choosing a pronoun, and whether they, he/she or he or she was more appropriate. The students were asked to match pronouns to antecedents. Green found that “the traditional notion of common gender is not always operative in the minds of contemporary readers.”Students tended to use the plural pronoun after the singular teacher: “What a teacher says the first day reveals whether they are interested in the subject.” Green also found that the students who were all taking college-level English courses at the time tended to select traditionally correct forms, yet continued to choose pronouns according to gender rather than number, with they, them and their in particular functioning as singular pronouns. (Green 153)
When asked in a personal interview if he would correct students if they used they as a singular pronoun in the classroom, Dr. Dave McKercher, a Sessional Instructor of Linguistics at the University of Victoria replied “I certainly would not correct them, because I know that 'they' has taken on a singular meaning in certain contexts, and used to do so in the history of English. It works well, so I would be fine with students using it.” (2008)
The generic he seems to be counterintuitive, especially when its use is observed in children. The majority of the time they will not use the pronoun he as a generic until its usage is formally acquired in school. Tina Bennett-Kastor (1996) reports that in a study done by Eikenberry and Keller it was found that “He is always interpreted as masculine [by young children]…but older children (e.g., seventh graders) [will] interpret them more often as generics.” (p.287, 296)
In the mid-1990s, Bennett-Kastor designed an experiment to determine the inherent understanding of pronouns in children aged 9-12, especially to find out whether or not the grammar of the sentences influenced their pronoun choices, or if their usages were “influenced by their beliefs about the gender of classes of individuals in the world.” In order to do this, the experiment had to take anaphoric pronouns (expressions referring to antecedent nouns), and nonanaphoric pronouns (a contextually determined pronoun, which is not controlled by the antecedent) into account. She found that by about the fifth grade, some children have acquired the “generic” function of the masculine personal pronoun, but this knowledge is unreliable and seems to be influenced more by the child’s beliefs about the real world or stereotypes “than by truly anaphoric generic interpretations.” (p.296) In these studies “They with a singular antecedent [noun phrase] was associated most often with gender-neutral interpretations. She was most strongly associated with gender interpretations, followed by he.” (p.297)
Bennett-Kastor followed this experiment up with a task involving spontaneous production, and found that the use of generic he was even rarer, and “they was the most common anaphoric choice-used equally to refer to stereotypical males, females, or referents of either gender.” Bennett-Kastor concludes from this data that “Of the lexically specified features of pronouns, gender appears to be more salient than number (hence unmarked they for gender-neutral singular referents)”. (p. 299)
Because of a “heightened concern about inclusive language” (Meyers, 1990), more attention has been given to generic pronoun choices recently than ever before. The example “No person shall be forced to have an abortion against his will” demonstrates how gender-linked pronouns can be inadequate vehicles for gender-free meanings. As for the hypercorrective and “so-called egalitarian method of alternating masculine and feminine pronouns” (Meyers, 1990, p. 228), it is showed to be even more ridiculous in the following sentence:
Following a head injury, have the patient lie down and remain completely quiet,
no matter how she feels. Have him do this even though he acts all right and
insists that you leave her alone. Keep the patient flat on his back (or face down
if he’s vomiting) if her face is gray, blue, or pale. (Meyers, 1990, p.228)
From a feminist perspective, the pronoun system of the English language can be viewed as androcentric, treating women as nonpersons. A radical thinker in 1712, Jonathan Swift first announced “the ideal of grammatical correctness”, and said that the label “correct” came to be applied to so-called “generic” uses of the masculine pronoun as a result of male control of the educational establishment in England (and the texts). (Stanley, 1978, p.800)
As quoted in Stanley’s 1978 paper, Anne Bodine has said that the belief that man, mankind and he function as generics is a myth. Feminists have argued that using masculine pronouns as generics can create unconscious sexism within the language users, especially cases such as “The doctor ate his lunch”, which creates the illusion within speech that ‘doctor=male’. This theory, that language can determine thought, is also known as the Sapir-Whorf theory, or Linguistic Relativity theory. In short, the essential idea is that language determines thought. The way we think is affected by language use, especially our classification of the experienced world. (Levinson, 1996, p.1) In theory then, if English had a singular epicene pronoun rather than having to resort to using he as a neutral, then a decrease in sexism would logically follow.
In opposition to the view of linguistic relativity is universalism, which argues that the world may be a reality that never changes, no matter how you speak about it, and the “veil of linguistic difference can be ripped aside with relative ease.” (Levinson, 1996 p.1 )
I haven't seen any evidence that use of masculine or feminine pronouns
affects attitudes or behaviours. This is similar to politically correct language
in that the argument for use of PC terms is that language affects thought, but
language affects cognition only in certain conceptual domains and under
certain conditions. (McKercher, 2008)
Various alternatives to the use of they as a first person gender neutral pronoun have been proposed over the centuries. In 1814, Murray (qtd. In Baron, 1981) declared that it would work, if the gender of a child was unknown, as in “It is a lovely infant”. This may have been appropriate in the 19th century, but semanticians today have found that it does not suffice. In English, the pronoun it has two semantic features for gender, [-feminine] and [-masculine], instead of the traditional label neuter that would apply to other languages, such as German. What this means is that noun classification in modern English relies on only two sex-specific labels ([+ or – masculine] and [+ or – feminine]) as a function of the animate/inanimate distinction, with only non-human things defined with lack of gender. ([-masculine] and [-feminine], or “it”). Because there are not any nouns in English that can be marked for the features [+feminine], [+masculine] and [+neuter], it is rarely used in speech, especially when referring to a human being. (Johnson, 2004, p.808-809)
An anonymous author (qtd. in Baron, 1981, p.85) voiced his unease on the lack of a generic third person singular pronoun, saying “my only comfort is the fact that I am not alone in my misery. How often do I see a fellow-mortal pause in the middle of a sentence, groping blindly for the missing word.” It is awkward in English to avoid making gender distinctions in the singular, and would be easier if English had a generic singular third person pronoun. The online writing lab (OWL, 2008) website from Purdue University includes a recommendation to change the noun you are using as an antecedent to a plural “so that you can use “they” as your pronoun if you are having trouble with pronoun usage.
Ever since the question of whether or not they can be used as a first person gender neutral pronoun arose, there have been people eager to coin a new word to take its place. People have come up with some interesting neologisms for the third-person singular common-gender pronoun over the years:
In a Chinese cookbook, hse is defined as the author’s “usual way of pronouncing he and she without distinction when [he] speak[s] English”. (Baron, 1981)
A Mrs. Ella Young made headlines when she addressed a meeting of school principles in Chicago in 1912 as follows: “A principal should so conduct his’er school that all pupils are engaged in something that is profitable to him’er and where the pupil is required to use knowledge in school in accomplishing his’er task” (Baron, 1981, p. 88-95). Young proclaimed that since most feminine pronouns in English end in ‘er, all you have to do to make a common pronoun is take the masculine form, and add ‘er to it.
There was also a dictionary contest in 1927-The Forum 77:265-68 (cited in Baron, 1981). The contest had a $5 book prize for the best suggestions of new words to put in a 1937 dictionary of English. One of the winners was an anonymous writer who suggested the bisexual pronoun ha, which declines to hez and hem (as would he, his and them). (Baron, 1981)
A few common strategies used for creating a new epicene pronoun are borrowing (French on, le, and en), blends (thon, he’er, shem), clippings (e, per), and creations from roots of words (na, ae, ip). The best known neologism is probably thon, a blend formed from ‘that one’ by Charles Crozat Converse in 1884 (Baron, 1981), who felt that a new pronoun would be better accepted if it were formed “from English word elements and sounds already in common use.” He thought that an abbreviation would be more readily accepted than an entirely new word. Unfortunately, Thon is usually remembered as the artificially created epicene pronoun that failed, and is cited when people try to disprove the need for such a pronoun’s existence.
When asked what approach he would take if he were asked to come up with a brand new singular gender neutral third person singular pronoun in English, McKercher (2008) replied that he “would be inclined to use a new set of words that fit the paradigm pe/pim/pis, for example so analogy with he/him/his (and they could rhyme). Why base it on him and not on her? Well, the /m/ is more frequent in accusative case forms (me, them) and also 'her' is ambiguous between accusative and genitive, while him/his are not.”
Some of these proposed pronouns seemed to catch on for a brief time, but none have made it into our language as of yet. Thon was included in Webster’s Dictionary, Second edition, and both thon and he’er were picked up by the Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary (Thon first made an appearance in 1898, and he’er and its inflections, his’er and him’er were included by 1925.) These were listed as recently as 1964. (Baron, 1981)
When asked about why these proposed epicene pronouns have not “stuck”, McKercher (2008) replied that “Languages generally don't like to take in new words into closed classes [such as pronouns], no matter how useful they might be. Pronouns are high frequency words and change is very slow for this type of word, unlike open class words like nouns and verbs, where new words come into the language all the time.”
There is no definitive answer as to whether or not the singular third person generic pronoun usage is correct or incorrect, as there are many possible interpretations of the rules of language. Further studies could be done on areas such as the effects of pronoun usage on thought, or the social implications of the use of a “gender neutral” he , especially on children today.
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