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Epicene pronouns in the grammar of English

The rationalisation that “man embraces woman” was virtually unknown in the fifteenth century (Spender 1980). There were three forms in English for a sex-indefinite referent: he or she, they and he. Baron (1986: 193) points out that singular they has a long history in Modern English, stretching back to the mid sixteenth century, and a distinguished one as it occurs in the works of Addison, Austen, Fielding, Chesterfield, Ruskin and Scott. But by the end of the 17th century, prescriptive grammarians began to use he as a generic pronoun in an attempt to avoid the use of singular they which was considered ungrammatical. These grammarians accepted the definition of they as exclusively plural, which implied that they failed to agree with a singular sex-indefinite antecedent and encouraged the use of he, which lacks agreement of gender.

Bodine (1975) states that early grammarians, who felt motivated by an interest in logic, accuracy and elegance, insisted that it was not only more natural to place the man before the woman but it was also proper because the male gender was the worthier gender. The same principle was repeated in the eighteenth century by Kirby (1746), who posited that “The masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as Any Person who knows what he says” (as cited in Bodine 1975).

This represented a move toward the concept of male as the universal category and therefore, the norm. This concept was based on the grammarians’ perspective of the world and dictated by an androcentric world-view that cemented men’s role as language planners and regulators (Bodine 1975). Bodine goes on to say that, “although androcentrism was present, it had not resulted in the proscription of singular they, which was still freely used along with he or she and sex-indefinite he” (Bodine 1975: 129).

Generally speaking, this androcentric view of the world has, as Mills (2009: 51) explains, contributed to the conceptualisation of male terms as the unmarked forms and female terms as the marked, and this, in turn, has contributed to the invisibility of women within the language and within society as a whole.

Examining the legal meaning of man and he the historian Charlotte Stopes (1908, cited in Baron 1986) demonstrated that nineteenth-century English lawyers were willing to admit the gender-neutral terms-both genders combined-when there was a penalty to be incurred but never when there was a privilege to be conferred. This, together with the attack of grammarians on singular they, culminated in an Act of Parliament in 1850 (Acts Interpretations Act), which gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of generic he. The text, as cited by Baron (1986: 140) reads:

Be it enacted, that in all Acts to be hereafter made Words importing the Masculine Gender shall be deemed and taken to include Females, and the Singular to include the Plural, and the Plural the Singular, unless the contrary as to Gender or Number is expressly provided. [British Sessions Papers (1850) 338.I.5]

The advocacy of sex-indefinite he and the androcentric world-view underlying it were also strong in America. In 1880 an American prescriptive grammarian, White (1880, as cited in Bodine 1975: 131) stated that he “is the representative pronoun, as mankind includes both men and women” because he or she “seems to me very finical and pedantic”.

This view somehow prevailed up until the 1970s when Bodine (1975) examined thirty-three of the school grammars used in American junior and senior schools and found that twenty-eight of these books condemned both he or she and singular they because they were clumsy and inaccurate. She concluded that the pupils were taught to achieve both elegance of expression and accuracy by referring to women as he. Bodine went on to say that in the light of the fact that children are exposed to the pattern of everyday conversational usage from the day they are born, and later on, they meet the overwhelming use of the masculine reference in books at school, it comes as no surprise that they cannot escape internalising the notion of generic he, which renders women invisible.

With the growth of feminism there has been ample opportunity for feminist linguists to demystify the ways in which language is used to support this patriarchal order, but research into language and sex did not really begin in a systematic or serious way until the early 1970s. With the emergence of the feminist movement in the 20th century the use of generic he started to be questioned due to an increasing number of experimental investigations of the generic masculine that confirmed that most people understand he to refer to men only (MacKay 1983).

Although an attempt to change pronominal usage was considered futile (Lakoff 2004), there were many attempts to create sex-neutral pronouns such as tey, thon, na, per, po, and person (Crystal 1997: 46) but they had no support. Nevertheless, current research (Baranowski 2002, Parini 2004) has confirmed that he seems to be declining to singular they and to he or she with the use of semantically neutral expressions in contemporary written English.

Taking a diachronic perspective, Laitinen (2008) studied the anaphoric use of the epicene pronouns he and they and the cataphoric use of he, they and those in formal and informal letters during the periods of Early and Late Modern English. He also estimated the impact of gender, register and geographical area on the writer’s choice.

In his gender analysis, Laitinen concluded that in anaphora, women preferred they in over 80 per cent of the tokens throughout the three centuries, whereas men were more equally divided between the two variants. Variation in terms of gender largely exceeded the influence of register and geographical area. In cataphora, the development towards those seemed to have been unconscious and independent of the social variables analysed.

Looking at epicene pronominal use in an academic setting, Bate (1978) studied language preferences of 20 faculty members at the University of Oregon. The part concerning the use of epicene pronouns revealed that half of the informants were not fully comfortable with he, whereas the majority accepted he or she without hesitation. Most participants expressed disapproval of singular they as non-standard. However, in following interviews half of the informants condemning they used it themselves in reference to expressions such as anyone and a faculty member. Bate concluded that singular they might eventually come into acceptance in written English.

More recently, in her study of academic discourse in English, Zapletalova (2009) concludes that there is a strong relation between the type of antecedent and the epicene pronominal forms that occur in the two academic journals she examined. Although her corpus for analysis is substantially small, she also reports on the trend towards the use of they as the preferred pronominal choice.

Turning to journalistic writing, a study carried out by Baranowski (2002) has shown that the use of singular they is becoming increasingly common in written English. After analysing a body of data obtained from The Independent of London and the San Francisco Chronicle newspapers, Baranowski concludes that he is no longer the preferred singular epicene pronoun in English, and that, although the three forms of the epicene pronoun exist alongside each other, singular they is now the predominant form.

Also, Pauwels (2001: 109) in her study of the use of gender-neutral pronouns in public speech as exemplified in radio programmes broadcast in Australia concludes that “...singular they is or has become the unmarked generic pronoun in semi-formal, non-scripted speech among professionals and its use far exceeds that of any other alternative, including normative he”.

The use of epicene pronominal choice in spoken English has also been studied by Romaine (2001: 161) who, in her study of American television interviews and talk shows, reports the speakers’ preference for the use of they with singular antecedents of indeterminate gender like person, everyone, anyone, etc.

In consonance with this extensive body of research, our exploratory study will examine epicene pronominal choice in relation to the linguistic context and the type of genre taken as independent variables.

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