GENERIC PRONOUN

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GENERIC PRONOUNAlso common-gender pronoun, epicene pronoun. A PERSONAL PRONOUN that includes both masculine and feminine, such as u in Persian (which translates he and she) and they in English, which does not distinguish gender. English does not have a singular equivalent for u, but the he-group of pronouns has traditionally been called GENERIC, along with such words as man and mankind: ‘Words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females’ (from an Act of Parliament, London, 1850). The use of generic he is, however, often ambiguous, because it tends to identify masculine gender with the universally human and in the process appears to exclude or marginalize women. For these reasons, it has been challenged in recent years, especially by feminists. Generic he continues in use, but efforts have been made, with varying degrees of success, to circumvent it. These include: (1) The use of he or she, which serves in limited contexts but becomes awkward in longer texts. (2) The use of composite s/he, which cannot be spoken, and composite he/she and she/he, in effect compound pronouns. (3) The use of she alone, often to make a sociopolitical point. (4) The reversal she and he, for similar reasons. (5) Generic she in texts and contexts where women are in the majority, such as books about teaching and secretarial work. (6) The use of he and she and she and he alternately, which may become forced in longer texts. (7) General you and one, which may alter the message. In AmE, the tradition of onehe (When one does this, he finds …), as opposed to BrE oneone (When one does this, one finds … ) returns the user to the problem of generic he. (8) Plurals rather than singulars wherever possible: the doctorhe changed to doctorsthey. This appears to be a widespread strategy to avoid the problem. (9) Rephrasing sentences so as to avoid pronouns completely, especially by using the agentless passive.

Singular they

The they-pronoun group is increasingly used in such singular constructions as: ‘Anyone who wants to write non-sexist English will need to have their wits about them. They will need to be thick-skinned, too, for if they write sentences like my first one, they will hear criticism from those people who are upset by the use of the plural pronoun them with a singular pronoun like anyone’ ( Jenny Cheshire, ‘A Question of Masculine Bias’, English Today 1, Jan. 1985). The use of they-pronouns, as in Everyone should bring their coats, dates from the 16c, is widespread, is increasingly acceptable in informal BrE and AmE, and is increasingly common with ‘dual gender’ nouns such as speaker, subscriber. Singular usage increasingly includes themself, a form that dates from the 15c but has always been rare: ‘I think somebody should immediately address themself to this problem’ ( A. Thomas Ellis, The Times, 9 Sept. 1987).

Artificial pronouns

In recent years, attempts to replace generic he have led to the invention of inclusive third person pronouns. As members of a syntactic system, pronouns. As members of a syntactic system, pronouns are normally slow to change; the last great adaptation was the 17c replacement of the thou-group with singular you. The coining of such new pronouns has met with responses varying from sober consideration through wry amusement to open ridicule. The first such pronoun appears to have been thon, created by Charles Converse of Erie in 1884, who described it as a contraction of that one and appears not to have been aware that demonstrative thon (that one over there) has long been used in Scots and Northern English. In On Writing Well, William Zinsser may have spoken for many when he commented: ‘I very much doubt that thon wants that word in thons language or that thon would use it thonself. This is not how the language changes’ (1980). Coinages (some serious, some tongue-in-cheek) include co (by the writer Mary Orovan), et (by Aline Hoffman of Sarnia, Ontario), hey (by Ronald Gill of Derby, England), hesh/hirm/hizer (by Professor Robert Longwell, U. of North Carolina), hir (in a 1979 supervisors' guide for the American Management Association), per (abbreviating person, by the writer Marge Pierce), and ws/wself (by Dr John B. Sykes, editor, Concise Oxford Dictionary, 7th edition). See GENDER BIAS, SEXISM.