Is “he” really generic?

The prescriptive rule regarding singular generic he emerged in the eighteenth century, when grammarians decided that the indefinite pronouns (e.g., anyone, everyone, somebody, each) must always be singular. They subsequently had to decide between the feminine and masculine singular pronouns (she and he and their inflectional forms) for the generic, in order that pronouns and their antecedents would match in number. They chose the masculine pronoun: Somebody forgot his book. This rule became the norm in style guides, and many adopted it, even when it made for strange sentences: “Everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion” (Albert Bleumenthal, NY State Assembly).

Of the following sentences, which sounds most natural to you?

  1. Everyone brought their book.
  2. Everyone brought his book.
  3. Everyone brought her book.
  4. Everyone brought his or her book.

If you chose number one, you are not alone. As Dr. Curzan explains in the above video, we often use singular generic they and its inflectional forms in speech, and no one blinks an eye. But what about in writing? Mary Norris, copy editor for The New Yorker, suggests rephrasing sentences to avoid the problem altogether (see video below). For example, “Everyone took their seat” might become “Everyone sat down.” She recalls one instance when a writer changed “Everyone would do exactly as they liked” to “Everyone would do exactly as he liked.” She remarks that she was “pleased” when she saw the change. “Once in a while,” she explains, “the conservative use of the masculine to cover both the feminine and the masculine blends in and doesn’t do any harm.”

Watch both of the above videos and then answer these questions: Do you agree with Norris that the use of singular he “doesn’t do any harm”? How might Tyson respond to her assertions? How might Curzan?

Having read Tyson on gender studies (pp. 103-112), can you think of other reasons why we might need a singular generic pronoun? The topic is so timely that the American Dialect Society voted they the word of the year for 2015. Follow this link to read about their decision. For Norris’s take on the subject, watch the video below.



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