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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.
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Well! A new writer. Welcome to the front. You guys…….errrr……. and gal are just too damn interesting.
Thank you Arcangel! I’m excited to be here. It’s as interesting hunting down this stuff and writing the articles as it is reading them.
Thanks for this article. Now maybe I can leave off the mental gymnastics when I’m writing.
And I love the Parliament’s rationalization for the rule… perhaps they also felt that “[elections] importing the male [vote] shall be deemed and taken to include females.”
I would like to propose that we dispense with the nonsense and widely re-adopt “they/their” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun… grammar purists be damned. I am a firm believer that grammar evolves through its misuse, and this lack of a fitting pronoun is one area where English needs some serious evolution.
I’ve been doing that for years, Alan. So much so I even have a standard reply when a grammar purist starts in on me. “As a citizen of the sovereign United States I do not recognize the authority of the British Parliament to legislate my language.” As you might imagine this gets me a lot of blank looks. Plus there’s the added bonus that nothing aggravates most grammar purists more than having someone one-up them on language trivia.
I’ve been using “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun for some time because it makes more sense than any alternative. Language can’t be awkward, now can it? “They” is as close to keeping the flow smooth as I believe possible. Furthermore, you hear it constantly in conversation, and the whole point of language is to communicate clearly, isn’t it?
I use ‘they’ as well, in spite of what those crazy nuns taught me in ‘grammar’ school. I do believe Noah Webster turned over in his grave when Parliament did what they did, and if he were alive, Mr. Webster would have revised his ‘A Grammatical Institute of the English Language’ accordingly. Noah Webster was, after all, the first American language rebel. btw.. nice piece, Cynthia. Thank you very much.
Of course, ‘They/them/their’ is also often used as convenient, if grammatically obtuse, shorthand in a few other contexts. One that comes to mind is in phrases like “…or so they say,” which often comes without any explanation of who “they” are – it’s just shorthand for “the Other” or “the Great Unwashed Masses” or what have you. ‘They/them/their’ may well be on its way to becoming the Swiss Army Knife of the English language.
Interestingly, in Dutch, another modern language with major Saxon influences, ‘they’ is ‘zij’, but ‘she’ is also ‘zij’! So the inclusiveness in that language is in the female form.
The problem with the word their (sorry, I can’t use italics in this window) as used in the first sentence of the article is less a matter of gender neutrality than it is of incorrect number. That is, the antecedent (“someone”) is singular, and a plural pronoun (“their”) their cannot properly have a singular antecedent.
Additional notes: 1. The title of the book in question should be underlined or italicized, not put in quotation marks. 2. Where quoted material is used at the end of a sentence, and the ending punctuation is a period, the period (in American usage, anyway–so much for the British Parliament!) should precede the ending quotation mark.
craigfowings – note made on the book title, though I have written is several places where quotations is the accepted set-off for a title, so the underlining or italicization rules are not universal. Mea culpa on the period. I’ve only been getting comfortable with proper punctuation with quotation marks in the last six-months or so, and sometimes don’t catch mistakes the way I should.
On the other hand, if ‘their’ is accepted as a correct singular gender-neutral pronoun, than the incorrect number is simply not an issue. It strikes me as no worse than the incorrect gender of ‘he’, which can lead to such odd constructs as: “All doctors have major scheduling problems. Whether he is running his kids to school, or trying to squeeze in time for his own obstetrical appointment, the modern American doctor…” See the problem?
craigfowings said: “The title of the book in question should be underlined or italicized, not put in quotation marks.”
This is a good example of how the Internet is changing written English, for better or for worse. On the Internet, it is quite common to wrap a book title in quotes, because the traditional underline causes confusion with hyperlinks, and italics are typically reserved for emphasis. Similarly, computers and the Internet have precipitated a change in paragraph formatting; traditionally, the first line of each paragraph is indented, but because the Tab key often has a different function on a computer (changes caret focus), it is now commonly accepted practice to simply separate paragraphs with a blank line.
Alan Bellows said: “On the Internet, it is quite common to wrap a book title in quotes, because the traditional underline causes confusion with hyperlinks, and italics are typically reserved for emphasis.”
I tend to use emphasis (<em>) for book titles, although I think I should be using the cite tag (<cite>) which is normally styled with italics, too. This use of italics doesn’t diminish the role of emphasis within the text since the context and capitalization help to distinguish it as a book title. As for quotation marks, they still translate in my mind as titles for articles and poems and such. And definitely, I’m annoyed when I come across underlined text that doesn’t link to something.
Besides, the underline tag (<u>) has been deprecated which makes it more difficult to underline anything on the fly. Similarly the italics and bold tags (<i> and <b>) have been dropped in favor of emphasis (<em>) and strong (<strong>) since they better indicate the logical nature of the text to which styles can be applied. (Often if you can’t use italics (<i>) when commenting, you should try the emphasis tag (<em>) which is more likely to be among the set of tags allowed, since web designers usually want their web pages to validate as proper XHTML.)
And there you have one example of how writing is changing now that you have to make text both human-readable and computer-readable. You might say the W3C is following in the footsteps of the English Parliament, confusing us all to no end. In this case, the entire world is writhing in their iron grip.
If someone used their political position to alter English grammar, would it work?
I don’t get it? Surely “it” in this sentence applies to the attempt to alter grammar, not the person doing the altering.
Robert Waugh said: “I tend to use emphasis (<em>) for book titles, although I think I should be using the cite tag (<cite>) which is normally styled with italics, too.
Unless you’re emphasising the title text, you shouldn’t be using <em>, and <cite> should only be used when giving the source of a quotation (for instance, my name above could be placed in the <cite> element). That leaves us with the clumsy <span class=”title”> or something similar.
maerk said: “… and <cite> should only be used when giving the source of a quotation (for instance, my name above could be placed in the <cite> element).”
I see a lot of confusing information about the cite tag, but most usage examples I’ve found show <cite> used specifically for book titles, with or without a quote, and occasionally without any characterization of the book’s content. Even if I don’t quote material within the book, article or other document, I am still citing the work with its title. In other words, the citation is not a quotation or a reference to a quotation, but a reference to another document using its title.
On another note, I’ve dug through most of the books on my shelf, and I have not found one example of an underlined book title. They are all italicized. In the entry for “quotation marks” in Wilson Follett’s book Modern American Usage (revised by Erik Wensberg in 1998) I found this bit of guidance:
“Style manuals differ, but in general the titles of short stories, essays, musical compositions, and other works not normally published as books are enclosed in quotation marks, unlike book titles, which are italicized.”
Is underlining something teachers have their students do to make it easier to find the sources in handwritten, typewritten or computer-printed essays? Do underlined titles crop up in other contexts?
Robert Waugh asked “Is underlining something teachers have their students do to make it easier to find the sources in handwritten, typewritten or computer-printed essays?” Yes, that is the purpose of underlining as a substitute for italicizing. The use of italics is the preferred method of setting off foreign words and phrases; names of ships, aircraft, and other transportation vessesl; titles of books, magazines, plays, and other such works; and for words, letters, and numbers referred to as such. Italicizing is an easy matter for typeset or computer-generated material, but italics cannot easily be used in handwriting–and cannot be used at all with old-fashioned typewriters–so underlining is an acceptable alternative in those cases. The whole issue of HTML applications is well beyond my understanding, but it appears to introduce new complications of which I am entirely ignorant.
As to the original question of the use of the third-personal plural “they,” “them,” or “their” instead of “he,” “him,” or “his,” Cynthia Wood noted “On the other hand, if ‘their’ is accepted as a correct singular gender-neutral pronoun, than[sic] the incorrect number is simply not an issue.” A true statement, but based on the false presupposition of the acceptance of “their” as a correct (in reference to a singular antecedent) gender-neutral pronoun. The third person masculine had already been accepted as a gender-neutral usage, as she noted in the original article, for over 150 years. Why, then, should we now introduce a new substitute with its inherent problem of using a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent? It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that doing so is really just a matter of our modern, aberrational obsession with gender neutrality. Granted, I am a curmudgeon; but we do need some curmudgeons to apply the brakes to what would otherwise be the willy-nilly decline of language into a series of meaningful grunts.
Apologies for the grammar error. I do not tend to check my comments with the same attention that I use for articles, but I do try to keep them clean.
On the other hand – part of the problem with ‘he’ as the gender-neutral pronoun, is that it isn’t. People do read it as meaning male in many contexts. Any sentence which makes reference to ‘him’ pulling up his stockings, is going to give the reader pause. Not too gender neutral in my book. My point is that using ‘their’ is not a new usage, but a return to an old one, and one that many people use in their everyday language, particularly their spoken language, without hesitation, confusion, or even realizing they’re doing it.
Maybe I’m weird, but I’m far more concerned with clarity of language than with it’s perfectly “proper” grammar.
Cynthia Wood said:
” Any sentence which makes reference to ‘him’ pulling up his stockings, is going to give the reader pause.”
The example is a straw man. There’s certainly nothing wrong with using the third person singular feminine pronoun (“she,” “her,” “hers”) when the antecedent is clearly female. My point (not well made, I’m afraid) was merely that because English has no gender-neutral third person singular pronoun other than “it,” some convention must be agreed upon for usage when the antecedent is singular and the gender is unknown and (unlike the quoted example) unsuggested by the context. For over 150 years, that convention has been to use the masculine pronoun and understand that it can refer to either gender. My attempted point was of the “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” sort, with the conclusion being that it has been only the modern gender hypersensitivity phenomenon that has led some to think that “it’s broke.”
By the way, “it’s” is always a contraction for “it is”; it can never be properly used for the possessive pronoun “its.”
craigfowings said: “The example is a straw man.”
Please, “straw person.” A straw woman is certainly as capable as a straw man of being hoisted upon a pole in order to be burned figuratively. :P
craigfowings said: “… some convention must be agreed upon”
Why must some convention be agreed upon in this case? Are human linguistic skills so poorly developed that readers would be thrown into absolute confusion by the use of “they” in reference to a singular antecedent? So, English has no distinct gender-neutral pronoun in the third person singular… why must another pronoun be consistently misused throughout literature?
I keep reading the argument that the rule to use masculine pronouns is arbitrary and really doesn’t affect a person’s perceptions of gender roles, so let’s just stay the course on this particular rule. But if it is arbitrary and doesn’t affect perceptions, then why — at the very least — can’t the solution to gender/number mismatch be left as a matter of personal preference?
I won’t argue one way or the other if I’m hypersensitive, or caught up in some phenomenon (like a hula hoop craze,) but I am sensitive to gender issues, as are many other people. It irks me to see “he” used as if the word somehow includes women in its definition, or somehow connotes the inclusion of women by the sheer absurdity of its not including them. I know it’s small beer compared to other injustices, but I would prefer to use “they,” “he or she,” or almost anything else when I write. I would much prefer to offend all the grammar-mavens who’ve had their rule books handed to them by some nitpicking antecedent than offend one woman who may have struggled all her life to be included among the men in a particular role I’m writing about.
Why does it matter if I choose to make that statement? This point of grammar seems as pointless as a blue law prohibiting the wearing of pants by women. We don’t need a law agreeing that women should all wear pants or should all wear skirts. We don’t need a law either way. Why should we agree on which pronoun to misuse?
And, what’s up with this modern grammar hypersensitivity phenomenon?
craigfowings – My point was that it’s possible to have sentences that included female-specific actions, yet still refer to both genders when taken as a whole (Whether he’s shaving his beard, or pulling up his stockings, the modern American worker…). My second point is that the very fact that the sentence sounds weird is an indication that the reader’s subconscious mind hasn’t given up on the masculine orientation of the pronoun.
Another comment, English already has a pronoun that function as both a singular and a plural – ‘you’ – we don’t seem to have any problems with that one. I fail to see why allowing ‘they/their/them’ to be used singularly will cause great problems and confusion.
Mostly I don’t mind other people using ‘him’ as a gender neutral if they desire. I just wish they’d stop correcting me as if I’d committed some great grammatical sin when I use ‘them’. I’ve had enough linguistics in my life to know that grammar is constantly on the move anyway. I have no particular desire to be on the leading edge pushing it along, but pronoun usage as outlined in the article is hardly massive change. I see no reason why, when a possible change comes along that I deem to be an improvement, I shouldn’t implement it in my own language usage.
And yes, I misused ‘it’s’ earlier. I’m well aware of the difference, but my fingers are used to typing ‘s for a possessive, so sometimes I miss.
Well I’m not from England, I don’t speak English, so I don’t know a lot about this! Anyway, I do have friends in England and I visit them every summer, They all speak with ‘they’ instead of ‘he’. I always use ‘he’ but I thought that ‘they’ also was right, it seems I’m mistaking…
Anyway, I’m thirteen so I really don’t know a lot about this! I’m from Belgium I speak dutch so…
Villavelius said: “Interestingly, in Dutch, another modern language with major Saxon influences, ‘they’ is ‘zij’, but ‘she’ is also ‘zij’! So the inclusiveness in that language is in the female form.”
Hmm, I never really thought about that! Good to know that my language is in a female form :D.
I LURned LAtun four for yurs! And I absolutely fuking hate grammar. fuk u grammar!
If you are able to understand to some degree what is being conveyed by the writer – who cares? I married a Louisiana Cajun and after 6 years he still “axes” me questions. I grit my teeth and leave it be. :)
craigfowings said: ” Granted, I am a curmudgeon; but we do need some curmudgeons to apply the brakes to what would otherwise be the willy-nilly decline of language into a series of meaningful grunts.”
I have always been fascinated by how people assume that by not safeguarding the prescriptive rules of grammar we are precipitating the collapse of English, or any other language for that matter. It is a little bit elitist, and, more often than not, ignorant. If you consider the complex grammars of the many forms of English, including everything from the Queen’s English to that which is spoken in the LA projects, it is impossible to say which, if any, is superior to any of the others. Even I Deserve’s note on “axes” – which isn’t so much grammatical as linguistic – is an example of the differentiation that exists between the many uses of English. And, who, pray tell, is supposed to make the final decision? The British Parliament? I think not!
I mean, looking at the most prevalent language acquisition theories, we are all born with what Chomsky calls a Universal Grammar (UG) that allows us to acquire a language by simply being exposed to it. The language that we acquire is then the “correct” language for us, and everything else we hear leaves us gritting out teeth; However, if ALL the Brits say “My team are playing in the cup tonight”, who am I to tell them they are saying it wrong? A team, after all, is composed of a large amount of people, and maybe shouldn’t be considered to be a single entity. Now that’s something to think about.
Speaking of thinking, here’s an idea: two thirds of people who speak English are non-native speakers. (for the sake of this post let’s assume a native speaker is someone who acquired a language rather than learned it from a text of some sort). That’s a lot of people who are in a better position to change the conventions of use than the native minority, who are slowly losing their grip on the universal teacher – business. So, the next time someone scolds you for using a sentence ending preposition I would strongly urge you to laugh, as the grammar that you have coded in your head is a lot more complex than they have given you credit for.
“What am I talking about?” You ask. Just the idea that prescriptive grammar isn’t all that its cut out to be, and sometimes allowing for the evolution of a language is a lot easier then writing essays with “he or she” repeated 99 times or more.
Now, here’s the kicker to get you really thinking: this post has 8 intentional errors according to the rules of prescriptive grammar. Did you spot more than one when you were reading it for the first time? Can you even find the other 7?
*n.b. if you find more than 8, you have spent WAY too much time studying English grammar, and reading this post :-D
The idea of an English language purist is quite funny. English is a ‘bastard’ language, with ‘bastardized’ rules of usage, and becomes more ‘bastardized’ by the month.
I do agree with English purism on one point, nouns.
Point: It is common to hear about America being a “democracy”. America has never been a “democracy”; it has always been a “republic”. Democracy and republic are not synonyms, nor should they be used as such.
I think it’s a bit ironic that the photo beside the article is not of the British Parliament buildings in London, but of the Canadian parliament buildings in Ottawa.
Jim Baerg said: “I think it’s a bit ironic that the photo beside the article is not of the British Parliament buildings in London, but of the Canadian parliament buildings in Ottawa.”
I noticed that too. Considering it snows very rarely in London, and it doesn’t usually stay very long when it does, there probably shouldn’t be snow on the building. Also the roof to the British Parliament is mostl dark, where the roof to the Canadian Parliament is bright green copper (mostly).
Here are some pictures of the actual British Parliament:British Parliament: View from the Thames, British Parliament: Big Ben .
Here are some additional pictures of the Canadaian Parliament:Canadian Parliament: Winter , Canadian Parliament: Snow , Canadian Parliament: Garden , Canadian Parliament: Light Show , Canadian Parliament: Peace Tower , Canadian Parliament: Christmas .
Wow. That first sentence burned my eyes! I almost didn’t read the rest of the article. I’m such a tool.
I’ve actually adopted the reflexive pronoun “themself” on occasion, too. Of course it’s not a word, but it should be. It will be necessary if we accept the singular “they/them/their”.
And it’s my understanding that quoted book titles are only to be underlined, not italicized, when they are handwritten.
And that Canadian Parliament building is damn ugly! A sense of proportion, please.
Regarding grammar, one of my pet peeves with the media is their constant use of “and” or “but” to begin a sentence. I thought we were taught in school that it was taboo, and that it formed an incomplete sentence. Surely an organization like a media outlet who make their living from writing words should know the basic rules of grammar, no? And it just bugs me. But not too badly.
I read somewhere that both aksan and askan (aks and ask) were interchangeable in old English. So, you could aks someone a question, but with an older form.
Also, I find it interesting they way technology influences that convention for italics/ underline in referencing. Back in the day, even with early word processors it was often difficult to get italics. For a manual typewriter, you’d need to replace the keys (or the ball) to get a different type face (or, “font” as they say not-so correctly these days).
Correct. But as the article points out it has only been this way for about 150 years. Back then someone like you could have opposed the change with the exact same reasoning you now use, and maybe we’d still have they/their/them as 3rd person singular today…
Whom were was here. Who?
Please don’t do it. If you want to be politically correct, use “she” as a gender neutral pronoun.
As a foreign guy who has been learning English for the last 25 years and still find it complicate, I will tell you that the last thing we need is another source of confusion.
It was bad enough when, centuries ago, the singular “thou” was replace by “you”. Last month, when I protested to a representative of a company, I said “You suck” (referring to the company) and the representative took it as a personal insult.
And what about “can” and “can’t”. Since the “t” is not pronounced, the only difference lies in the vowel. The difference is so tiny that most times I don’t know whether I can do something or not.
The fundamental distinction in English language is between singular and plural. Almost any word has this distinction (exception: the infamous “you”). English language has only a handful of words that make the masculine/femenine distinction: personal pronouns, some names of people and animals. A tiny percentage of the language. The vast majority of English words are gender neutral.
So try to blur a fundamental distinction (singular/plural between he/she and they), to be accurate in a very unimportant distinction (he/she) does not make sense grammatically. Yes, in the past that was the case, but in the past everybody used “thou”, “shalt” and so on and so forth.
So let’s imagine a contract “The trainer will pay the members of the team. They will be responsible of the costs of the clothes”. Who is they? The trainer or the members of the team? Who is responsible to pay for the clothes.
If you want to help women, please stop domestic violence. Please help the women who are hungry in Africa. There are thousands of ways to help women and make this world better for them and less male chauvinistic. When a woman is discriminated, she doesn’t mind if something refers to her with “he” or “they”. So please spare us all this unnecessary and confusing change of grammar.
As a foreign guy who has been learning three other foreign languages (french, latin and japanese) and dabbled in several more (spanish, romanian and a few others) I can tell you that english is one of the least complicated laguages there are.
No surprise there. I would feel insulted by that even if I realized you were talking about the company. As a general rule you should avoid cursing and swearing in a language that is not familiar to you! (In a business environment you should avoid swearing and cursing altogether.)
I don’t know where the english speakers you routinely talk to come from, but in my experience the “t” isn’t dropped at all. There may be some people whose pronounciation is that slurred, but so far I’ve had the luck not to have to interact with them ;-)
Which is one reason the english language is so easy to learn. Try learning french or german…
(I’m not saying I don’t like french or my native german, but it is harder to learn for foreigners.)
Counter-example: “The share-holders elect the members of the board. They are responsible for waiving the budget.” In this case there is no choice but “they” (if you want to use a pronoun) and the wording is still imprecise. That is the reason why you usually don’t find many pronouns at all in legal texts, gender-neutral or not. It is perfectly acceptable to repeat the subject for clarification, like “The members of the board are responsible for waiving the budget.”
Cynthia, I love your article, especially the last line. Despite those couple errors (that we’ve all made), it’s concise but says a lot. I’m also all for using ‘their’ as a singular possessive.
My stance is less about the sexist aspect, more about being correct in the communication. Using ‘he’ when gender-neutrality is intended is misleading, just as using ‘her’ would be. Coming up with new words like ‘hir’ or the annoying ‘s/he’ is absurd, since ‘their’ is already there and used most prominently in everyday speech.
While ‘his’ may be less grammatically suspect since it maintains concord in subject-pronoun agreement, it is more erroneous in concept since it intrudes on the gender by adding an element that simply is not true. If a male is not specific to the sentence, ‘his’ should simply not be used. Writing is about telling stories and, unless you are writing a scientific or economic piece—and often even then, gender is usually more important than number.
The fact that grammarians have not distinguished between the singular and plural of ‘your’ or ‘who’ should prove that this is an arbitrary rule, dreamed up by the nit-picky rather than the writers and speakers who actually use the English language in their craft. It should be expelled just as the beliefs that you can’t split an infinitive or start a sentence with ‘And’ have. Of course there should be a standard so that we may properly communicate with each other, but rules that make little or no sense should not be part of that standard. From what I can see, the topic of your article is the most perverse of English rules out there at the moment. Someone of authority needs to come out and state it decisively.
(By the way, the Chicago Manual of Style did promote the use of ‘their’ as a singular possessive recently (14th ed. maybe), but they have since lost their nerve and rescinded)
This man who killed anyone in the way of his recreating our earth is a woman hating gey.
So obviously, this he-man lingo embellishment is one of his many sinister signatures we had to live with..
I said ‘had’, hopefully, there is a time when he isnt sure what is what in the future and stops killing people and threatening to pull the plug on our universe..
I know of at least one person trying to use xe/xem/xir
Great article, but after the 1707 Act of Union there was no ‘English’ parliament, just a British one (based in England).
I’ve never understood why no one has simply suggested that in cases where gender is unknown, it should be acceptable to use ‘it’ to refer to a person.
It did not start with Robert Lowth. It started with Anne Fisher who published “A New Grammar” in 1745.
While it seems probably that some bigots did use this change in the language to further their anti-woman agendas, there does not seem to be evidence that the change in the language was done so that women could be oppressed. The change seems to have been made primarily because it was thought that agreement of number was more important.
Thirteen years after this article appeared, and things have become vastly more silly in American English.