CNN hits the trifecta

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Several people have drawn my attention to a harmonic convergence of LL topics on today: social media, gender-neutral pronouns, and linguistic time machines. The article is Elizabeth Landau, "On Twitter, is it 'he or she' or 'they' or 'ip'?", and Ms. Landau is worried that English will be unable to reach the epicene ideal, due to fundamental principles of linguistics:

Consider the sentence "Everyone loves his mother." The word "his" may be seen as both sexist and inaccurate, but replacing it with "his or her" seems cumbersome, and "they" is grammatically incorrect. […]

It turns out that an English speaker's mind can't instantly adopt an imposed new gender-neutral system of pronouns, linguists say. A sudden change in the system of pronouns or other auxiliary words in any language is very difficult to achieve.

She quotes both Steven Pinker and Mark Pagel in support of her concerns.

"The function words form a closed club that resists new members," Harvard University linguist Steven Pinker writes in his book "The Language Instinct."


"We could time travel and have very limited conversation," said Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, who led the study. "We really believe that we can probably go back 20,000 years with those really, really old words."

But in fact, neither of these eminent scientists has anything to say that should really lead Ms. Landau or her readers to fear that we might be stuck with "his or her mother" for tens of thousands of years into the future.

In fact, Language Log is here to reassure Ms. Landau that the problem has already been solved. Singular they is supported not only by the usage of today's youth,  but also by historical scholarship, psychological experimentation, government regulation, and divine inspiration.

[For a more complete discussion of the historical issues (both descriptive and prescriptive), take a look at pp. 51-53, 414-416, 662-664, 666-667, 860, 901-903, of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.]

[As we've often suggested, you should definitely buy either the full or concise version of the just-cited book — the fact that a full scan is now available on Google Books makes it even more useful as a reference, since you can use the search function. And speaking of social media, just consider this review, the first one that MWDEU has gotten on the Google Books site:

My name is……………..
well I can't tell you cause my friend…(cant tell you her name)'s mom said not to give out personal info on the web. I did'nt read this book but I want
to some day. From what i have heard this book is very long, and has a lot of words, AWESOMEly, I want to eat a taco at tacobell so bye,
(cant say) i'll give you a hint it starts with a………………………………………

What more is there to say? ]

[For another perspective, see Ben Yagoda, "The inevitable epicene solution", LA Times, 2/19/2007:

WHAT DOES A tipping point sound like? Possibly, what I heard recently when a leaf of paper fluttered out of a credit card mailing. It offered rewards points for ordering additional cards for family members and had the heading: "No one has to know you added them for the rewards." The copywriter's use of the word "them" — instead of the traditional "him" or the more recently favored "him or her" — was the semantic straw that broke the camel's back. It was a signal that the genderless pronoun had arrived.

"Returned" might be a better way to put it. Before the mid-18th century, English writers and speakers universally referred back to an indefinite antecedent ("everyone," "anyone," "a person") with the pronouns "they," "their" or "them." This was understandable because all singular personal pronouns are gender specific. And so, Shakespeare: "God send everyone their heart's desire." The King James Bible: "In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves." Henry Fielding: "Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?"

From the late 1700s through the early 1900s, much grammatical rule making took place in England and the United States, and the rule makers were offended by the use of otherwise plural pronouns to stand in for singular nouns. Their collective wisdom determined that the appropriate pronoun in all such cases should be masculine generic — that is, "he," "him" and "his." The usage is grammatically unimpeachable but, in excluding females, is not only politically but factually incorrect, leading to the publication of sentences such as, "Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young."

I'm not sure what he means by "grammatically unimpeachable" — those of us in the grammatical division of the reality-based community have been impeaching as fast as we can for some time — but I'll let it go, since according to Ben the tipping point was a little over two years ago in any event. ]


  1. Wordoch said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    "Everyone loves their mother." 'grammatically incorrect' or ungrammatical, I think not these days.

    [(myl) Well, technically, Ms. Landau suggested that "Everyone loves they mother" would be grammatically incorrect; and I think we can agree that it's non-standard. "Everyone loves their mother", on the other hand, is not only OK these days, it's been OK for the past 600 years or so.]

  2. John Lawler said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:42 am

    Does that mean that "linguists say" it?

  3. Mark F. said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:56 am

    I don't think singular they has yet established itself as a perfect solution to the problem. There are still cases where it definitely feels awkward, like the "Pat has changed their Facebook profile" example that has been mentioned at LL before. And I also suspect that a quantitative descriptive analysis that took into account degree of formality would find that singular they becomes less common the more formal the writing style.

    I think the solution is to persist in using it in formal contexts to try to remove any taint, but now we're getting into social engineering. If you're just trying to describe the state of affairs, you have to at least look at its frequency of use in different contexts. It's informative that that Jane Austen used it a lot, and the King James translators used it at least once, and it's not absent even in the most formal contexts of current writing; but that isn't enough to prove that it still doesn't have some tendency to make writing feel less formal, in case that's something you want to avoid.

    [(myl) The King James translators used it several times, including both cases where they followed the original language and cases where they didn't.

    More seriously, it's true enough that there's no general solution yet for definite antecedents, since the attempts to extend they/their/them in that direction remain iffy. However, Landau doesn't give us any examples of that problem. ]

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

    @Mark F.: The relevant LL post is "Facebook phases out singular 'they'."

  5. Jim said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    "The function words form a closed club that resists new members,"

    That's the explanation i have heard for why Thai has been able to borrow in "I" and "you" from English to solve another pronoun problem – pronoouns are not a closed class in Thai.

  6. Stephen Jones said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    Everyone can be followed by 'their' without the blinking of an eyelid since it's notionally plural.

    The matter sounds strange with the name because surely if we know enough about a person to name them, we know what sex they are.

  7. Sophie Sofasaurus said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 1:22 pm

    If enough people grow up seeing usages such as "Pat has changed their Facebook profile" often enough, "their" for a named individual of unspecified gender will come to seem perfectly natural and the problem will be solved…

  8. Lane said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

    On this, I say to each their own.

  9. Wordnut said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    "Pat has changed their Facebook profile"

    This bothered me more than the Lands' End apostrophe! Fortunately if you tell Facebook your gender, the problem goes away.

  10. Chris M. said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    I'm sad to say I haven't read this blog in a couple of months, but as soon as I saw this story on CNN, I knew I had to check in. I was not disappointed. I think CNN would be doing a greater public/journalistic service if they didn't cover linguistic topics at all.

  11. marie-lucie said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    Perhaps "Pat" did not give enough indications to readers to determine whether they (the readers) are dealing with a male or female.

  12. Nate said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

    "The function words form a closed club that resists new members,"

    I'm curious about why Pinker believes this to be true. To me, the most obvious explanation is that English speakers don't feel the pressing need to adopt any new ones. Possible reasons for this include de facto androcentrism to be sure, but also that speakers are happy with their descriptivist solutions. Since it is so common to use "they", "their", etc. as gender-neutral pronouns, English speakers may not feel any desire to solve a problem that to them doesn't exist.

    [(myl) That remark echoes the opinions of dozens of researchers in historical linguistics, who have simply observed the empirical fact that (across languages and places and times) grammatical words are less likely to be borrowed than content words are. There are plenty of exceptions, including some systematic ones (discourse connectives are especially easy to borrow), but in general, true pronouns are much less likely to be borrowed or invented than (say) nouns are.]

  13. kenny v said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    I have appropriated "yo" into my lexicon as the gender-neutral singular pronoun, which some youths on the east coast apparently use.

    [See here and here. Conclusion: this is probably an instance of the more general practice of using bare adjectives or nouns as referring expressions, added to the slang use of "yo" (short for "yo boy") to mean a gofer for drug dealers. ]

  14. Brett said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    "Perhaps "Pat" did not give enough indications to readers to determine whether they (the readers) are dealing with a male or female."

    I think that's a reasonable assumption.

  15. Shii said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    I'm not sure what Twitter has to do with the article at all. I think the entire article was a ploy for ad money, although I'm pretty sure people won't be forwarding it on to their friends.

    [(myl) Gee, three people forwarded it to me…]

  16. John Laviolette said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    By an astounding coincidence, the last new pronoun to be borrowed and officially adopted by English was "they". I don't have my Bright's Old English Grammar, but I seem to recall that the third person plural and the feminine singular were identical ("heo/hie".)

  17. Steve said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

    One of the many things I like about Language Log is its support for singular 'they'. It has always struck me as the most obvious and elegant solution for the lack of a genderless pronoun in English, but until I read Language Log the best I could come up with in its defence against those who thought it should always be masculine, or favoured 's/he' (how do you pronounce it?) or thought we should always use feminine pronouns as some sort of payback, or invented new pronouns, was to say 'Well, after all, it's what everybody says when they don't think about it, and there's a sort of ancestor of genderless 'them' in Chaucer, and I'm sure I've seen it in Shakespeare and Jane Austen, but I'm not sure where.'

    Thanks to the many interesting posts here I could now be more specific and authoritative, but I find I don't need to be, because, having passed the tipping point, far fewer people seem to object to it. Which might be a small triumph for 'what everybody says when they don't think about it' – in other words, the organic growth of a language – over the prescriptivists.

    And, by the way, I think 'Pat has changed their Facebook profile' is fine – a genderless name needs a genderless pronoun. 'John has changed their Facebook profile' would be weird – since we know from his name that John is male it would be perverse not to use a male pronoun. But since we don't know if Pat is male or female it is only polite to avoid choosing between 'his' and 'her'.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 8:00 pm

    By an astounding coincidence, the last new pronoun to be borrowed and officially adopted by English was "they". I don't have my Bright's Old English Grammar, but I seem to recall that the third person plural and the feminine singular were identical ("heo/hie".)

    The reasons for this borrowing were mentioned on an earlier "thread" which I cannot find at the moment.

  19. marie-lucie said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    Actually, they/them/their were not "borrowed" in the strict sense, but became alternate forms, then the only forms, largely replacing the original ones which caused confusion with other forms. This is not the same as "borrowing" a word because there is no equivalent in one's language. The need for a generic 3rd person singular pronoun in English has not thus far caused English to borrow such a pronoun from another language (genderless definite pronouns not being common in languages that English speakers often come into contact with), and no creation has gained more than a tiny, short-lived circle of supporters. But there is no need to borrow or invent a new pronoun when there is "they" and its other forms.

    Actually there has been such a pronoun, at least in some registers: reading Dickens some years ago I was struck by the use of "same" as a genderless singular pronoun by some characters, whose speech did not appear to be quite standard: "Same said/did … I said to same …", etc. (Sorry, I don't have genuine examples at hand).

  20. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

    Why the need to cross over from an anti-prescriptivist defense of singular they to a prescriptivist assault on generic he (and thus, by implication, on those of us whose idiolects typically use that construction in preference to singular they)? The notion that a particular pattern of pronoun use either causes or is caused in turn by "androcentrism" seems like bogus pop Whorfianism which the sophisticated clientele of LL ought to be able to see through. Simple counterexample: Hugarian third person singular pronouns not inflected for gender do not correlate with notably more "egalitarian" or "progressive" male/female relations than those found elsewhere in Europe. Similarly, Greville Corbett's book called simply Gender notes that for some sort of history-of-Slavic reason a particular "sexist" pattern is found in Polish but is absent from Russian, before adding the deadpan coda that "however, this does not reflect any obvious difference in the relative status of Polish and Russian women and men."

    Slightly more complicated related counterexample, the English lexicon lacks the helpful vir/homo aner/anthropos distinction found in Latin & Greek, traditionally using "man" for both (which e.g. bugs those who find the traditional English line "for us men and for our salvation" in the Nicene Creed insufficiently "inclusive"), but surely the cultures of classical Latin & Greek speakers were more severely patriarchal or sexist or male-chauvinist or whatever you want to call it than any English-speaking culture from Chaucer through the present. The fault, if any, is not in our grammars but ourselves. .

  21. Feykie said,

    March 6, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

    I quite like Spivak Pronouns. They're simple to figure out and unintrusive. After using them a few times, I'm already accustomed to them and don't find it odd to see them in sites. Singular 'they' is fine (and I use it without any qualms), but I'd prefer to have 'they' be only plural and not also gender neutral singular.

    As a writer, I often find myself wishing English had a well-accepted gender neutral pronoun. There are times when I actually want to hide the gender of the character, and generic 'he' doesn't cut it because I only ever use it in the case of a male character, and my (non existant!) readers will likely have picked up on this and think "Oh, this character must be male." Singular 'they' is fine in some cases, but I know I've found it hard to have it in sentences sometimes without having it sound stilted or still referring to many people.
    "Zeen picked up their book." Zeen is picking up Zeen's book, but it sounds like Zeen is picking up a book that belongs to a group of other people/

    In short, although I would easily accept singular 'they', I would much prefer a seperate set of pronouns (ideally Spivak Pronouns) to refer to gender neutral people or characters with hidden gender.

  22. Vincent said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 2:35 am

    As a non-linguist elderly member of the general public I seize eagerly on J. W. Brewer's pointing out the "prescriptivist assault on generic he", and like him (or her, for I'll politely grant him the feminine possibility), I cling to my own idiolect, which happens to be the English I was taught in England in the Forties and Fifties. I shall continue to wince privately, or indeed privately wince, at some usages which have superseded my own, in areas considered sensitive. Again from politeness, whilst recalling that a shade of dark brown was referred to in clothing catalogues as "nigger", I'll not use that word today.

    To me, it comes down to good manners. The young must not proscribe the usages of a still-living older generation; nor must that older generation condemn the usages of the young, even when they privately consider them barbarous.

  23. Wordoch said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 6:03 am

    I read over Ms. Landau's piece again, and she does say 'they' would grammatically incorrect. But I;m confused; why would she give the nominative plural pronoun as an alternative for 'his or her', clearly the dative/genitive singular equivalent? 'Everyone loves they mother' would be non-standard, but 'everyone loves their mother' is uncontroversially okay. I read it so fast I didn't even relise she'd suggested that. Is she just trying to prove her point by introducinga spurious alternative to really, really obvious one?

    [(myl) I think she was just careless. Or her copy editor was (assuming that CNN has copy editors). ]

  24. Fred said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 7:27 am

    If only Ms. Landau would take a German course, where he, she, and it is all goofed up. I've never had a problem with English "he" ever since.

  25. Paul Kay said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    It seems to me Stephen Jones has hit a nail on the head. I agree with several contributors (and disagree with Steve [≠ Stephen Jones]) that "Pat has changed their Facebook profile," sounds awful. And I agree with Stephen Jones that the reason is that if we know someone's name we usually know their sex. So, the problem is not about definites: "The last person out left their umbrella," is fine, although the last person out is definite. So I'm inclined to say it's as simple as, "If you don't know the sex of a single person, use they, them or their." But someone is sure to point out that it's not that easy.

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    @ Paul Kay: But isn't it equally "simple" (if that's the desideratum) to say "If you don't know the sex of a single person, use he, him, or his"? If they etc. can supposedly be readily understood in context not to connote pluralness, why should it be any more difficult for he etc. to be understood not to necessarily connote maleness? (Or any more difficult than understanding "I" as used in the "between you and I" construction not to connote nominativeness or subjecthood or whatever you'd want to call the case/role it usually connotes?)

  27. marie-lucie said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    JWB: it might be "simple" but only in the abstract. "Singular" and "plural" refer to the number, not the nature, of the entities considered, while "male" and "female" refer to their nature, so the two oppositions are not at all equivalent. And "case" is a purely grammatical term": "Me Tarzan" is just as understandable as "I Tarzan."

  28. Michael Maxwell said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 11:43 pm

    FWIW (probably not much), Ben Yagoda misquotes the KJV. The verse in question is actually "In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves", i.e. with a singular "other". I would have said (as Yagoda does) "each the others" (assuming there are more than two people verbing), but one does use what appears to be a singular with " each other" even when the subject is more than two, e.g. "all three people looked at each other(*s)". Not sure what to make of that…

  29. Picky said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    JWB: Yes, just as simple, whatever marie-lucie says. We might as well admit that the reason the previously perfectly acceptable "he" pronoun has become unacceptable in these cases is gender-based prescriptivism. This prescriptivism was much disparaged at the time it began to become effective, but most of us now have taken it on board. The prescriptivism in the field of race is less easy to absorb because it changes its mind so often – and we should have every sympathy with Vincent when he just keeps on in his old descriptive ways. But in the both fields – gender and race – the need for change was great, and we might as well buckle down under the prescription.

  30. Mark Liberman said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

    J.W. Brewer: Why the need to cross over from an anti-prescriptivist defense of singular they to a prescriptivist assault on generic he (and thus, by implication, on those of us whose idiolects typically use that construction in preference to singular they)? The notion that a particular pattern of pronoun use either causes or is caused in turn by "androcentrism" seems like bogus pop Whorfianism which the sophisticated clientele of LL ought to be able to see through.

    I don't recall having seen any such arguments in a post on this site.

    There have been several posts, e.g. this one, where the argument has been made that "he" is not and never has been gender-neutral, based on the manifest oddness of sentences like "Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?"

    These arguments might be wrong, but they're arguments based on the facts of the English language as everyone allegedly uses it, they're not arguments based on opposition to androcentrism or anything else of the sort.

    The ideological value of gender-neutrality is a legitimate topic for debate, but I can't recall any prescriptive arguments about pronoun use being proposed here on that basis, and certainly none whatever in this post. You're boxing with a straw man, J.W.

    Picky: We might as well admit that the reason the previously perfectly acceptable "he" pronoun has become unacceptable in these cases is gender-based prescriptivism.

    We like to encourage those who make general statements to provide some empirical evidence for their views. Can you do so in this case?

  31. Steve said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    I'm surprised Paul Kay disagrees with me, because I don't think I disagree with him. Obviously if we know somebody's sex it would be 'perverse', as I said in my comment, to use a genderless pronoun. And I agree with him and Stephen Jones that 'if we know someone's name we usually know their sex' – usually, but not always. On Facebook, as indeed is the case with some of the names of those who comment here, it can quite often be impossible to tell someone's gender from their name. If I don't know if 'Pat' is male or female – and on the Internet that is quite likely to be the case – then if I refer to them as either 'him' or her' I have a 50% chance of getting it wrong, and I would have thought that getting somebody's sex wrong is usually considered a more serious social blunder than merely 'sounding awful'. Since both Paul Kay and Stephen Jones use singular 'their' and 'them' in their comments to refer to 'someone' and 'a person' respectively', surely their disagreement with me cannot go very deep.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    if we know someone's name we usually know their sex

    This is not at all obvious in a culture where more and more names which were originally men's (especially if originating as last names) are being used as women's names, starting with names ending in a vowel, especially [i], like Leslie, Beverley, Kimberley, Sidney and going on to Meredith, Brooke, Glenn, Cameron, Taylor, and yet others. New Age parents were also fond of giving their children names like Meadow, Raven, River and even Ocean. If these are names you come across only in writing (eg if the name is given as the author of a work), you cannot be sure of what kind of person you are referring to unless there is other information, any more than you would by only seeing the person's initials.

  33. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Going back to the beginning of the thread, I sensed, perhaps inaccurately, an undercurrent of prescriptivist dislike for generic he in, e.g., the comments of Mark F., Sophie, Steve & marie-lucie, as a result of their discussion of the issue in terms of problems, needs, and/or solutions, all of which struck me as treating the English-language-as-I-speak-it (e.g. with a general preference for generic he) as exhibiting a flaw in need of fixing. (On rereading I don't have the same sense from Prof. Liberman's problem-fixing rhetoric in the original post, which was perhaps either jocular or simply taking the journalist's perspective and addressing it on its own terms.) If I was misreading some or all of those commentators, I apologize. I can see why in an abstract sort of way it might be a problem for a language to use one set of pronouns to mean both someone-definitely-male and someone-of-unknown-sex, but it seems no more of a problem than using one set of pronouns for the second-person singular and the second-person plural. Or using the same set of pronouns for the third person plural and for the polite second-person both singular and plural. Or using the same set of first-person-plural pronouns for the "inclusive" and "exclusive" senses. Or, for that matter, using singular they while retaining the same set of pronouns for third-person-plural use. All natural languages have "problems" of this sort (likewise, grammatical gender routinely fails cross-linguistically to map perfectly onto the biological sex of the humans and other animals being referred to — I again commend Greville Corbett's book). Treating these problems as requiring That Something Be Done strikes me as exemplifying the sort of impulse generally derided around LL as prescriptivist.

    I think the brother-and-sister counterexample is interesting, but proves little to nothing about the general function of generic he. Like the fact that "between you and I" is much more widely used and accepted than "between I and you," it's a reminder that these patterns are complicated and hard to capture in a simple exceptionless rule. I haven't gone back to reread, but I do remember one or two posts on that counterexample striking me at the time as having an uncharacteristic tone for LL. I thought and think that the most charitable explanation for that is a perhaps understandable overreaction to prescriptivist assault on singular they, rather than an out-of-character-for-LL subordination of empiricism to political fashion.

  34. David said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 7:14 pm

    I'm somewhat surprised as to why no one's so far mentioned what seems to me to be the most (perhaps the only) disturbing thing with singular "they", namely that it breaks up verb agreement with number, so that we would use plural forms of the verb with a subject which we know to be singular (such as in "I like Pat: they're a nice person"). I don't know, I just react quite strongly to that. Maybe it is because as a native speaker of Swedish, a language which doesn't have verbal agreement, this kind of thing leaps out at me – you have to make sure that you keep track of the number of the subjects.

    (Swedish has a similar problem, but it is somewhat smaller because we have a gender (and number)-neutral reflexive possessive pronoun, "sin/sitt/sina" (the variant forms track the gender and number of the object, like French "son/sa/ses"). So "Pat has changed her/their profile" would be "Pat har ändrat sin profil" which would be the same irrespective of Pat's gender. But for cases where the problem occurs, it is my impression that we regularly use "he or she" ("han eller hon"), for instance in legislation. It is sometimes suggested that we import Finnish "hän" which completely accidentaly sounds like an intermediate version and which indeed is gender-neutral. The recommendation by the Swedish Language Council is to use "den" ("it", but referring to the common gender, where most animate nouns tend to be included, which doesn't sound so "objectifying"). The use of plural "de" and "dem" has to my knowledge never been suggested.)

  35. marie-lucie said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 8:55 pm


    I sensed, perhaps inaccurately, an undercurrent of prescriptivist dislike for generic he in, e.g., the comments of Mark F., Sophie, Steve & marie-lucie, as a result of their discussion of the issue in terms of problems, needs, and/or solutions, all of which struck me as treating the English-language-as-I-speak-it (e.g. with a general preference for generic he) as exhibiting a flaw in need of fixing.

    As a non-native speaker of English, I am not sure if I am following "an undercurrent of prescriptivist dislike", but I don't see in present-day spoken English "a general preference for generic he", since it is so often replaced by generic they.

    I first learned British English, where one stayed one, as in "One should pay attention to how one is writing", and was surprised by American "One …. what he is …". Later, when it became common to use alternate he and she in texts which could apply to either sex, as for instance in giving advice to parents about how to raise their children, I was surprised how much closer to me and my experiences the paragraphs with "she" felt than those with "he", even after many years of getting used to generic he. I wonder how many men have had the reverse experience in reading such texts, and realized that generic he would rarely be understood as applying to females. As to "the flaw in need of fixing", read on.

    @ David:

    the most (perhaps the only) disturbing thing with singular "they", namely that it breaks up verb agreement with number, so that we would use plural forms of the verb with a subject which we know to be singular (such as in "I like Pat: they're a nice person")

    Using "you" as both singular and plural (with plural verb always) also breaks the agreement rule: "I like you: you're a nice person". To be unambiguously understood as plural, "you" requires a special plural mark: "I like you guys/you all/yous/ etc, you're nice people". The plural forms are almost all colloquial if not non-standard. They reflect the natural desire of speakers to make a formal distinction between singular and plural, and their more or less conscious perception that in this respect the standard language has "a flaw in need of fixing".

  36. Picky said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    @ myl; re my general statement on prescriptivism and gender:

    Well, first an appeal to authority.

    R W Burchfield (MEU 1996):"From the earliest times until about the 1960s it was unquestionably acceptable to use the pronoun 'he' with indefinite reference to mean 'anyone, a person (of either sex)' … One of the minor successes of the feminist campaign to dislodge sexist vocabulary from the language has been the virtual replacement of 'he' after indefinite pronouns or with other backward reference by 'he or she' … Some solve the problem by using the plural pronoun 'they'."

    Second, the process can be seen in action. If one Googles "gender neutral language" one discovers a number of organisations (including public bodies) deciding, or being urged, to prescribe gender-neutral language but proscribe gender-neutral use of "he/him/his", the argument resting on feminism or anti-sexism, or on avoidance of offence to feminists or anti-sexists. Entries for these organisations are scattered among various examples of usage advice urging the same course.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 7:01 am


    Your quotation from Burchfield seems to say that using "they" is a response to the feminist campaign, while it has been shown (eg on LL, by Geoff Pullum I think) that singular they is widespread in older literature, including the King James Bible. And "unquestionably acceptable" means that it was used in written prose, it does not necessarily indicate the spoken usage of the time. Neither does the use of "he or she" reflect spontaneous spoken usage.

    Example: "Someone left a message for you. – What did they say?"

    The usual response is not "What did he say", and "What did he or she say" would sound ridiculously and pedantically "politically correct".

  38. Picky said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 8:25 am

    No, no, marie-lucie, sorry, I don't think that "singular they" is a response to feminism – and nor, I am sure, did Burchfield; "singular they" is clearly of long standing, although the ousting of "gender-neutral he" has boosted its use.

    What I alleged, and quote Burchfield as an authority to support, is that the unacceptability of "gender-neutral he" came about because of feminist and anti-sexist prescriptivism. The fact that "he or she" does not reflect spontaneous spoken usage simply supports this argument.

  39. Mark Liberman said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    Picky: R W Burchfield (MEU 1996):"From the earliest times until about the 1960s it was unquestionably acceptable to use the pronoun 'he' with indefinite reference to mean 'anyone, a person (of either sex)'"

    I don't think that this is really true, depending on what you mean by "earliest times", by "unquestionably", and by "acceptable".

    I gather that the first usage authority to prescribe he/him/his for generic third person singular was Lindley Murray in 1795:

    Pronouns must always agree with their antecedents, and the nouns for which they stand, in gender and number […]
    Of this rule there are many violations to be met with […] : "Each of the sexes should keep within its particular bounds, and content themselves with the advantages of their particular districts:" better thus : "The sexes should keep within their particular bounds, " &c. "Can any one, on their entrance into the world, be fully secure that they shall not be deceived?" "on his entrance," and "that he shall."

    it's clear from discussions of this sort that "singular they" was in common use at the end of the 18th century, as it had been for several centuries before that. It's not clear to me whether "generic he" was also a common variant, preferred by authorities like Murray; or whether it was an artificial usage, imposed in formal writing for logical or ideological reasons.

    In any case, it's clear that the generic use of "he" has nothing to do with pronouns as such. He/him/his have always been masculine pronouns (with the wrinkle that his was once also neuter, I believe); but it used to be common to use certain words with clear masculine reference to refer to groups including both males and females (men, mankind, Englishmen, etc.). One difficulty in analyzing examples of this sort — whether they involve he or man or some other word — is that it's often unclear what reference is really intended. Thus at the start of its entry for man, the OED explains that "In some of the quotations in this section, it is difficult or impossible to tell whether man is intended to mean 'person' or 'male human being'." Precision of expression, anyone?

    As I understand it, objections to generic use of masculine words were first raised in the 19th century. The period of densest discussion of these issues seems to have been in the 1980s. And as far as I can tell from a quick look at newspaper archives and the like, the changes in formal writing are incomplete, and the pace of change was not strikingly different in the 1960s compared to decades before and since. (I'd welcome some solid empirical evidence on this point.)

    So Burchfield's assertions about "the 1960s" strike me as a more restrained version of David Gelernter's epic display of seething cultural resentment, rather than a statement with any scholarly authority.

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    I don't know enough about Burchfield to try to defend him, but it seems worth noting that while a) the 1980's were when considerations of "political correctness" in language may have gone mainstream, b) that was a fairly obvious consequence of the ongoing impact of the cultural phenomenon loosely referred to as "the Sixties," as Boomers and their, shall we say, enablers, aged into positions of authority. To tie this back to an earlier issue, I would hypothesize that the '80's saw a boom in awkward "his or her" type constructions, coinage of Klingon-sounding alternatives, and general agita about the issue precisely because the US social institutions most interested in or vulnerable to political correctness in general and its feminist subset in particular (e.g. the academy, mainstream journalism and publishing etc.) were also the social institutions most likely to feel prescriptivist scruples about simply using singular they as the easy and off-the-shelf fix for the perceived problem. If true, this tends to confirm my contrarian view that the common association of prescriptivism in the US with the political right is a serious misperception. (Not that there aren't plenty of prescriptivists on the right, but the ones located in the parts of American society's language-propagating machinery where they can actually do damage are more likely to be politically left.)

  41. Picky said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    Well, that's a bit rough on the late Burchfield, who I think did have some recognised scholarly authority in the cloisters of the OED, but still …

    My knowledge would certainly not support an argument about how old "generic he" is. I note MWDEU says that, although Murray's was the first prescriptive statement, the "actual practice" was much older, and Anne Curzan (Gender Shifts in the History of English, 2003) alleges that it goes back to Chaucer – if not to Beowulf!

    Curzan also says "modern grammarians … have reached a consensus: generic he is sexist and should be avoided" – just exactly spot on the point I was making. It was Burchfield who picked on the 60s, not me, of course – although he doesn't say that was the climax of the process – but yes, evidence of just when this consensus was achieved would be interesting. Other than (obviously faulty) personal recollection, any contribution from me could only be scavenged from the work of others.

    A bit of scavenging would be interesting, though.

  42. Picky said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    Sorry, I meant myl was a bit rough, not JWB!

  43. chronicle of wasted time » Language Log said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    […] of gender distinction; Language Log question: Is "their"/ "they" okay as the non-gendered third-person singular pronoun? […]

  44. Picky said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 8:10 am


    Anne Pauwels (in Holmes and Meyerhoff, Handbook of Language and Gender) reports that her comparison of non-scripted speech from radio programmes and parliamentary debates in Australia between 60s and 70s and in the 90s "showed a steep decline in the use of generic he from the pre-feminist reform period (ie between the 1960s and 1970s) to the post-feminine reform period (ie the 1990s). In the pre-reform period approximately 95 per cent of all generic pronouns were generic he. Singular they recorded less than 1 (0.4) per cent, and "he or she" only 2.25 per cent. The post-reform period revealed a significant turnaround for singular they, which had become the most frequently used generic pronoun recording a 75 per cent usage rate."

    [(myl) This supports my impression that the main inflection point for declining use of generic he/his/him (in formal discourse) was in the 1980s, not the 1960s. The same idea is supported by a search in JSTOR for articles about "generic he" and "singular they", which shows a peak in the 1980s and 1990s.

    However, I predict that if you looked at speech that is less formal that radio programs and parliamentary debates, you'd find (a) that the rate of generic he/his/him in informal speech has always been very low, and (b) that it didn't really change much (if at all) in recent decades. ]

  45. Mark Liberman said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    PIcky: Well, that's a bit rough on the late Burchfield, who I think did have some recognised scholarly authority in the cloisters of the OED, but still …

    Apparently Burchfield, who wrote the passage in question in 1996, didn't read chapter 10 of Dennis Baron's 1986 book Grammar and Gender, which cites and quotes roughly a dozen 18th and 19th C writers who complain about the lack of an epicene pronoun in English, and specifically deny that he/his/him is genuinely generic.

    In fact, Burchfield must have read many of the sources that Baron cites — Robert Baker, Alexander Bain, Richard Meade Bache, Porter G. Perrin, H.L. Mencken, Otto Jespersen, etc. — without noticing this aspect of what they wrote. Nor, apparently, did he take note of the fact that Elizabeth Cady Stanton's 1895 Women's Bible used "she" as the generic pronoun, with explicit discussion at the time of this protest against generic "he". Nor did he recall Charles Crozat Converse's widely-publicized 1884 campaign to introduce the epicene pronoun thon, which was included in the 1898 edition of Funk & Wagnall's Standard Dictionary, as well as Webster's Second New International Dictionary

    So even if you believe that he has always been genuinely generic, and should continue to be used as a sex-neutral pronoun despite the objections, it's clearly false to assert that

    From the earliest times until about the 1960s it was unquestionably acceptable to use the pronoun 'he' with indefinite reference to mean 'anyone, a person (of either sex)'.

    And the falsehood of this historical claim is very easy to establish.

    When a historical scholar like Burchfield makes a sweeping assertion about historical fact that is transparently false, it's a plausible inference that his mind is clouded by an out-of-control emotional reaction. This is what lay behind my suggestion that his statement was a milder form of Gelernter's more extreme rant.

  46. Ken Brown said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 10:38 am

    This thread has been interesting because it has distinguished two different things. On the one hand singular "they" which has been in common use and therefore "correct" for centuries. And on the other hand the passing of generic "he" which does seem to be recent. So perhaps it is true to say that modern feminism has excluded generic "he" from normal written English, even though it is clearly false to say that feminism has introduced singular "they"?

    Though not that recent. I'm over fifty and I do a little mental start at "everybody loves his mother" because to me it implies a so-far un-named man or boy with a very popular mother. I also get unreasonably irritated at "one" paired with "he", it sounds unnatural and artifical to me, even though I am assured that Americans use it quite freely.

    The "correct" form in my idiolect is "everybody loves their mother". "Correct" in the sense that it is the way I've been saying it all my life and as far as I remember its the way most people around me have always said it. Even if they were saying something else only a few weeks before I started to notice such things (presumably some time in the 1960s)

    [(myl) I take it as established that "singular they" has been normal in both colloquial and formal English for more than 500 years, and that the strictures against it were developed by prescriptivist authors over the past couple of centuries, on what they felt to be logical grounds, rather than on the basis of any facts of usage.

    With respect to "generic he", the situation seems to be me to be less clear.

    One hypothesis is that he/his/him has always been exclusively masculine in reference; that (like other such words) it has sometimes been used to refer to someone whose sex is indeterminate, by those for whom masculine is the default; that for the past couple of centuries, some prescriptivist authors have urged its use as a genuine generic. On this hypothesis (most of) the generic uses in formal writing and speech are the result of this explicit campaign, and similarly the (near) lack of such uses in colloquial writing and speech is due to the smaller impact there of these artificial influences.

    The alternative hypothesis is that he/his/him has really always had a generic sense, which for some reason was lost or never developed in colloquial varieties of English.

    In either case, it's certainly true that many people over the years have objected to generic uses of masculine words, that these objections have become commoner and louder over the past few decades, and that such uses have declined in formal writing and speech as a result. ]

  47. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    JWB, would you agree with the following statement:

    Up to a recent date, when one was born a woman, one was expected to defer first to his father and brothers, eventually to his husband, and later, as a widow, to his sons.

  48. Picky said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    @ mark liberman

    I am simply not equipped with the knowledge to defend Burchfield against your arguments, and I shall not do so. It would be very silly of me to try to compete on that ground. But you will allow to say, I hope, that I am not scholarly enough to believe that it is quite the thing to dismiss a distinguished expert with whom you disagree as "clouded by an out-of-control emotional reaction". You may be right in countering his argument; I must assume you are right; and the stuff about emotion is amusing. It's not necessary, though.

    It also digresses from, and obscures, the point I was trying to support. This was, as Ken Brown says, that modern feminism has (or has very largely) excluded generic he. I have tried to provide some empirical evidence, which no doubt is unsatisfactory but at least pleases me, in that it confirms my own memory.

    Difficult to prove a negative, but evidence that it was not feminist prescriptivism, and the proscriptivism it led to, that did for poor old generic he?

    [(myl) I don't feel myself to be much affected by PC rectitudes — like Geoff Pullum, I dislike and refuse to use the term "person of color", and I've never been even faintly tempted to write "womyn" other than ironically. However, I experience the critique of so-called "generic he" as liberating me from an externally-imposed requirement to use he/his/him in a way that I perceive as misleading ("Everyone loves his mother"; "Nobody is stopping you, is he?") or risible ("Was it John or Mary who lost his keys?").

    The fact that "poor old generic he" seems always to have been absent from the vernacular leads me to think that my situation is typical of English speakers over the centuries, with the caveat that a few of them have internalized this artificial prescription, in the same way that some people have developed an apparently genuine dislike for splitting infinitives or stranding prepositions.

    If he and man really did have genuinely sex-neutral senses (as it seems to me, for example, that dog does), then it would be appropriate to have a discussion about whether to try to intervene to make an artificial change for political reasons, as was done in the case of "Ms." (leaving aside the history of "Miz" as a dialect pronunciation for the older marriage-status-neutral "Miss"). Such attempts are rarely successful, but the discussion would be a reasonable one.

    However, "one man in two is a woman" is a linguistic joke, not a linguistic problem. If this analysis is correct, then changing the English language isn't really on the table. Instead, we can just laugh off the prescriptivist arguments about why we should use "generic man" and "generic he", and let nature take its course. ]

  49. Picky said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 11:38 am

    @ mark liberman

    Just read your note to Ken Brown. The last paragraph is very very close to what I was saying. Thank you. I'll go and put the kettle on and think about what exactly the distinction is (hang on, we've been here before) between (a) prescriptivism and (b) objections that become louder and louder until they have their effect.

  50. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    Prescriptivists object to certain ways people use the language and sometimes have used it for centuries (and they often use it themselves in unguarded moments) in both speaking and writing. The objectors object to prescriptivists objecting to the way people (sometimes including themselves) actually speak and write, and trying to impose rigid rules which not only run counter to the natural use of the language but sometimes result in biased if not nonsensical speech.

    Early English prescriptivists were trying to remedy what they saw as flaws in the English language because it "offended against every rule of grammar", meaning Latin grammar, as was mentioned earlier on LL. There is no reason to keep perpetuating this attitude.

  51. Picky said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

    @ mark liberman

    There are questions, it seems, over whether "generic he" was or was not part of the vernacular. That said, I sympathise with what you say in your note.

    I expect you can sympathise with those who saw generic he, and other expressions which were part of their language, characterised as supporting the oppression of women, banned from use at work, and in some circumstances prohibited by law. This was prescriptivism with boots on – and made no more comfortable by the suspicion that the perpetrators had a point.

    My feeling is that we have seen the language re-engineered in part; re-engineered with mostly good motives. Probably we should have tried harder to prevent it, instead of accepting it in a bout of male-guilt: that it was possible to re-engineer it carries its own warning.

  52. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 3:53 pm


    As a non-native speaker, with no particular axe to grind, I don't see that the decrease in the use of "generic he" in written documents amounts to "re-engineering" the language. "Generic he" was the artificial prescription, not the natural use of most speakers, as opposed to the widely used "generic they" which (as shown by many historical documents) English speakers have been using in both speech and writing for hundreds of years, although it was banned from writing by some prescriptivists a couple of centuries or so ago.

  53. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    Also, a language is not a machine that can be "engineered". It evolves both according to its own inner logic and in response to the needs of the society that speaks it. This has been well-documented by the work of both historical linguists and sociolinguists.

  54. Graham said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    On 'singular they': this lovely example from "Guide to Sustainable Fashion and Beauty" by Summer Rayne Oakes (p. 016)

    'Each designer had his or her own awakening, brought about by an awareness of an issue that had far greater reach than their clientele's closets.'

    [I had feared that the book had been ghost written…]

  55. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Graham, this is what happens when writers remember a prescriptive rule (in this case, use "his or her", not "their") but then immediately revert to their inner sense of the language (which is to use generic "their").

  56. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

    Well, maybe my own natural-feeling use of generic he means I'm a victim of false consciousness and have fully internalized that wicked prescription while eschewing those against infinitive-splitting, separating that from which, etc. Or maybe I speak a different dialect. Or maybe I'm mistaken about my own usage (not that I don't think I use both generic he and singular they, but perhaps a crew of grad students following me around with tape recorders would establish that I'm wrong about the percentages) . As to Marie-Lucie's specific question, I find a sentence using generic he to refer to an individual specifically described as "born a woman" extremely odd-sounding and inconsistent with any pattern of usage with which I am familiar, although perhaps that is evidence of what is called "being insensitive to the trans community." I'm not saying the sense of "liberation" felt by some in the thread at the throwing off of generic he isn't subjectively sincere, but it seems like someone telling me that they find Italian "musical-sounding" or German "angry-sounding." What am I supposed to do with that information if my own subjective reaction differs?

    It's possible that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to this perceived problem. If prescriptivist political pressure is avoided, the fate of generic he need not be the fate of generic "man" and the fate of generic "man" in statements like "Man is the only animal that can be bored" need not be the fate of suffixed -man with reduced vowel in compounds like chairman. And the fate of "mankind" (which I have difficulty believing is commonly understood as presumptively excluding women by anyone who has not spent time in some sort of unusual indoctrination program) may be something else entirely.

  57. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    JWB, my sentence was intended to be provocative, but I don't think it is more outlandish than the jarring "Man, a mammal, breastfeeds his young." "One" throughout a sentence, with "one's" as the possessive, used even to refer to "oneself" as a token of a group, is (or perhaps was) common in written British English, where "he/his/him" to refer back to "one" is not used. If you read something like "As a parent, one should do everything to foster the healthy development of his child", it is not obvious that "his" applies equally to the mother and to the father, but "one's" does. Virginia Woolf chose the title "A room of one's own" to refer to what a woman writer such as herself needed (just like a male writer), not "A room of her own" which would have been about "woman" or "women" in general, not necessarily including herself.

    I agree with your statement that "It's possible that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to this perceived problem", and that some proposed solutions may be going too far, but the problem with the pronouns has existed for a long time, as Mark Liberman's quotations show. Thus far the easiest solution (which accords with the long-range development of the language) seems to be to accept informal "they" into more formal contexts, since the other proposed solutions are either unfeasible (creating a new pronoun) or often awkward (he or she, etc).

  58. joseph palmer said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    If we could only allow a little dose of prescriptivism to be healthy, now and again, we could criticize language which is clearly sexist and also sometimes silly and not worry about it.

  59. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    A little dose of prescription is not unhealthy, it is the "foolish consistency" of prescriptivism, sticking to artificially imposed rules, which is unhealthy.

  60. joseph palmer said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

    In that case, there should be only a campaign against certain artificially created rules, and not the actual one (waged here and elsewhere) against "prescriptivism".

  61. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 11:26 pm

    At this point we are perhaps beating a dead horse (mare?), but I'm not sure what to make of m-l's provocative/outlandish/jarring example sentences. They just seem ungrammatical to me, and I'm not sure what point they are intended to illustrate or fallacious claim they are intended to falsify. Perhaps that's because the "generic he" of my dialect is somewhat poorly named and fails to fully meet some abstract criterion of true genericness, because it applies both to known males and humans of unknown sex (with exceptions involving e.g. an unspecified member of an extremely small or otherwise unusual mixed-sex group) but not to known females? The breastfeeding example additionally seems odd to me because I'm not even sure if generic "man" in that type of use can be deployed to mean only males. "Man suffers from testicular cancer at a much higher rate than other primates" sounds wrong to me.

    It strikes me that the simplest and most elegant "fix" in the abstract would be generic it. We use that in English as the third party singular pronoun for non-human animals whose sex is unknown (or perhaps known to the speaker but not salient to the point being made) and similarly for human babies, and at least sometimes toddlers. It has the clear advantage of being singular in its more common use. But the existence and popularity of singular they (not to mention Klingon-like coinages of brand-new candidate third person singular pronouns) demonstrates, I think, extraordinarily strong and uniform resistance by English speakers to using "it" to refer to a human being of unknown sex over the age of three or four. But why? It's certainly not rational, logical, scientific or progressive. Does anyone know if similar resistance is common in other languges?

  62. elinar said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 1:56 am

    @J.W. Brewer re: Post No 56

    Strangely enough, it is always those disagreeing with our position who are ideologically motivated, even brain-washed, while we ourselves are dispassionate seekers of the Truth.

    Well, the truth in this case is that neither position is ideologically neutral, and both the defenders of the singular 'they' and the generic 'he' can show prescriptivist tendencies. Or do you really believe that you are being objective when you label as 'indoctrinated' those who interpret the generic 'he' or 'mankind' differently from you? I for one will resist the 'prescriptive political pressure' to accept your view of how these words should be understood.

    The fact is that there is no consensus on this, although (as far as I can see) the majority of people don't seem to share your intuitions. No one is stopping you from using the generic 'he', 'mankind' as an inclusive term, etc., but unfortunately the rules of the language game don't allow you to control how these terms are understood by others, nor what conclusions they draw about you on the basis of your linguistic habits.

  63. Picky said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 5:50 am

    marie-lucie (from way back yesterday) – we have established that there is a difference of opinion over whether "generic he" was part of normal speech or was introduced by prescription. No one has produced evidence either way (or, at least, I tried to, but Prof Liberman doubted whether speech on radio or in the Australian parliament represented the vernacular – although the Australian parliament is not, I think, famous for being particularly snooty about its language). Simply re-asserting your opinion doesn't alter the fact that this is a disputed matter. At any rate, "generic he" was certainly part of my own normal speech and writing until "the reform period".

    I accept that re-engineer was a bad metaphor, although I should add that I was not restricting myself to the case of generic he when I said the language had in part been re-engineered. I was referring to the whole exercise described in the feminist linguistic literature I quoted as "the reform period".

    I also think that in some ways the reform – certainly in the case of rendering apparently-arguably-sex-specific advertising unlawful in GB (Sex Discrimination Act 1975) – met a real need and has had real benefits. But it was, and is, an example of prescription; and it was the real nine-carat prescription: not by newspaper columnist but by law.

  64. Picky said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 5:52 am

    Correction: that should have been advertising "of jobs". Sorry. Careless.

  65. marie-lucie said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Picky, reread my previous message on the difference between "prescription" and "prescriptivism". I agree with you that anything "prescribed" or forbidden by law is an instance of "prescription", but that is different from "prescriptivism".

    JWB: Your paragraph about "it" is very interesting. Using "it" rather than "they" would seem like an obvious solution, but as far as I know it has never been tried or advocated. Indeed there seems to be an extremely strong resistance in English to using "it" for animates, even animals (and I have never heard anyone refer to a baby as "it" over the age of a few months at most, certainly not to refer to a walking and talking child). As a non-native speaker, one thing that struck me once I was immersed in an English environment was that children – and their parents talking to them – would refer to a small creature, like an ant or caterpillar or a bird, that they might encounter for instance in their garden, not as "it" but as "he", which in this case seemed to be generic for an animate being (and it seems that in some rural dialects all animals are referred to as "he", even those whose sex is obvious, such as cows). In contraxt, "she" is used in many rural or otherwise non-standard varieties to refer not only to human females but to things as diverse as weather phenomena or a piece of furniture one is working on, or, quite often, one's car, so the question of "gender" in English is not quite as cut and dried as its current equation with "sex" (meaning biological affiliation). Nevertheless, if even animals are not spontaneously referred to as "it", the pronoun is very unlikely to be applied to humans.

    In order to compare with other languages, one would have to do so with languages which, like English, show a systematic "gender" difference in pronouns but not in nouns. But English nouns used to have three grammatical genders just like German or Russian nouns still do, and Romance nouns still have two, so that pronouns follow the gender of the nouns they refer to, which in the case of animates do not necessarily agree with the sexual category of person or animal designated by the noun. In the modern world this sometimes causes problems, as in English. In the case of French, the response to the mismatch (eg masculine nouns for professions now open to women) has been to try to create feminine forms of such nouns (especially in Quebec), unlike the English response which has been to create "gender-neutral" nouns or to avoid nouns with exclusively female reference (such as "actress"). The two opposite responses have to do with the different structures of the languages: in French all nouns have a "gender", which entails using the same gender for associated adjectives and pronouns, but in English only a few nouns had a specifically feminine form, therefore in each language the reforms have aligned nouns for humans with the majority of nouns.

  66. Picky said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    marie-lucie: thank you for your suggestion – I have re-read your comments, but I think I already understood the difference between prescription and prescriptivism. On the other hand, if prescription is not what prescriptivists believe in, I am at a bit of a loss.

    You can define your way out of the problem if you like, but it is difficult to align an objection to prescriptivism on the one hand with, on the other, a cheery acceptance of it when it affects someone else's English.

    When elinar says "no one is stopping you using generic he" etc etc we can see a side-stepping of the fact that "modern grammarians … have reached a consensus: generic he is sexist and should be avoided" – a prescriptivist statement of the sort that an anti-prescriptivist might like to shake their fist(s) at.

  67. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    I happened upon a sentence which is perhaps ambiguous as to whether the "he" should be understood as "generic," but is also noteworthy for its rather sobering substance (it's from an English translation of St. John Climacus): "He whose will and desire in conversation is to establish his own opinion, even though what he says is true, should recognize that he is sick with the devil's disease." Obviously if taken seriously this perspective would destroy (or transform beyond recognition) the internet as we know it. But I will nonetheless treat it as a sign to withdraw from further disputing this issue in this forum at this time. Perhaps we can pick up on the less politically-charged issue of using "it" for non-human animates and human babies (where I think my experience has been somewhat different from m-l's, although we may have been starting from different baseline expectations) on another occasion.

  68. Picky said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    Oh lord, no, it's not generic. He's talking about me.

    I'll shut up, too.

  69. marie-lucie said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    Picky: if prescription is not what prescriptivists believe in, I am at a bit of a loss.

    Something can be prescribed in response to a need perceived by many users of the language, whether pedagogical (eg spelling reform) or social (the unsuitability and often unfairness of "generic he", etc), or whatever, just as laws or bylaws may be imposed by a recognized, competent authority in response to a perceived problem in society. (One may disagree with the prescriptions, but they are not arising out of nowhere).

    Prescriptivists on the other hand take it upon themselves to prescribe and proscribe when the vast majority of users have no problem with the way the language is used. To keep speakers and writers from "offending against" the rules of Latin grammar, when they were speaking English, a language with a different structure, was in no way the same as responding to a perceived need of those speakers and writers. To perpetuate such artificial rules, which do nothing to improve clarity, coherence, and other desirable qualities of expression (and sometimes actually prevent them), seems perverse.

    The futility of this approach in "re-engineering the language" through importing rules with little regard to the actual functioning of one's language is shown by the fact that the same artificial rules have been imposed on generations of students without having any effects on the spoken language of the majority (even if some highly literate persons do observe them in their own speech). When spoken usage changes markedly, it is because the majority of speakers sees a reason to adopt the changes they hear or read, not because such changes are being imposed on them from on high.

    In other words, "if it ain't broken, don't fix it": prescriptivists are compulsive fixers of language that doesn't need to be fixed, as opposed to prescribers who try to fix things that users agree need to be fixed.

  70. Allison said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    Historically "you" was a plural second person noun with "thu" (thorn u) but we now use "you" as both plural and singular second person pronoun (and maintained the conjugation of the plural – compare "you are" to "they are" and "he is") – there's plenty of historical precedence for the generalizing by analogy of pronouns. A new word to put in this place is much less likely than generalizing an existing pronoun, which seems to be the case.

    Maybe in 100 years we'll stop arguing about it.

  71. Mark Liberman said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:50 am

    Let me close (?) this discussion with a plea for prescriptivist science, an idea that seems unfortunately to be equally unpalatable to all parties traditionally involved in these disputes.

  72. Wordoch said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:46 am

    Late last word on Facebook – maybe they could give the profile a different 'role' in the sentence?

    Pat's profile has changed

    (Though that does leave open the unnerving implication that … she or he didn't change it herself.)

  73. Wordoch said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:47 am

    Oh look I think she's a girl, posted that without even thinking about it.

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