If someone used their political position to alter English grammar, would it work?

If that sentence bothered you, then the answer is yes.

You see, for most of the existence of the English language, ‘they’ was used as the accepted singular gender-neutral pronoun. The use of ‘it’ was reserved for objects, as it is today, but for people the pronoun of choice was they/their/them.

So how did this all change? Courtesy of the English Parliament.

In the middle 1700’s a fad was conceived for prescriptive grammars - books that laid out the laws of grammar and told people what was wrong and what was right. It started with one Robert Lowth – later to become Bishop of London – who wrote a little book entitled “Short Introduction to English Grammar”. Many of our classical grammar rules stem from that little volume. The rule against splitting infinitives, for example, stems from Mr. Lowth’s love of Latin. In Latin, since the infinitive of the verb is one word rather than two, it is impossible to split an infinitive. In English it’s a common way to speak. “To boldly go…”

However, Mr. Lowth did not cause the fall of 'they' as the singular gender-neutral pronoun. At least not directly. It was twenty years after the publication of Lowth’s book in 1761 that Sir Charles Coote wrote an expansion on the original volume and added his own preference for using 'he', 'him', and 'his' as the generic pronoun. That expanded book was used as a school text, and the usage became more prevalent, especially among the upper classes, where using the rules of the latinate texts was considered more refined, as opposed to the "coarse" language of the middle and lower classes.

The capper came in 1850 when the English Parliament became involved. They turned Sir Charles's preference into law. “…words importing the male gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.” Which sounds like a very inclusive way to run a language. Except that Parliament felt free to ignore their ruling when it came to issues like suffrage. So rather than including women in laws written for men, the effect of the ruling was to eliminate the true gender-neutral pronoun. Their enforcement of this rule in legal documents and contracts ensured that the usage spread, not only throughout England, but to other English-speaking countries as well.

Now, of course, awareness of gender bias in language has become prevalent, and the popularity of 'he' as a gender-neutral pronoun is fading. Odd constructs like 's/he', or 'hir', are being tried in various contexts with greater or lesser success. The lack of a true gender-neutral pronoun in English is decried repeatedly. Yet at the same time, many people do use 'they' quite unconsciously when speaking or writing, and are generally scolded for it by those who still follow prescriptive grammar rules.

Which only deepens the irony of realizing that we would already have what we need - if we were only willing to embrace what we threw away over 150 years ago.

Written by Cynthia Wood, posted on 09 January 2006. Cynthia is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.
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