Thursday, August 19, 2004

What they said

Via Crooked Timber comes this link to a discussion of gender neutrality in Canada. (More or less. Let's call it that.) Is "he" sex-neutral? It is not - can we say, per Pullum, "Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?"? No we cannot. Then (parenthetically) he adds (and I bless him for it):

The commonest way to get around the gender problem here is to use singular they: Was it your father or your mother who broke their leg on a ski trip?; Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself. Shakespeare used it; Jane Austen used it; loads of fine authors use it. Get used to it. And if you have a usage book like Strunk and White that declares singular they to be an error, throw that book away.

This is a practice long overdue in English writing, my friends. When I read books that, in referring to generic individuals, switch randomly back and forth between he and she, I think - they - use they! Stop annoying me! If a writer does not mean to refer to a man or a woman, they should just use "they"! Let us hope this practice spreads.

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