"he" and "he or she"

Lisa Minnick lisa.minnick at WMICH.EDU
Thu Dec 11 00:43:21 UTC 2008

In response to

    A message dated 12/9/2008 12:09:52 A.M. Eastern Standard Time:

        The Emoluments Clause provides that its rule applies to any
        senator or representative, "during the Time for which he was
        elected." Perhaps the  rule  the Emoluments Clause does not
        apply to female U.S. Senators.

    Rosemarie <ROSESKES(at)AOL(dot)COM> wrote on 12/09/08:

        Much as I dislike Hillary, I can't imagine anyone will get away
        with trying to apply that logic. I learned in (approx.) 3rd
        grade that a generalized "he" should - be taken to mean "he or she."


With all due respect to your third-grade teacher, over thirty years'
worth of linguistic research indicates otherwise. First, what something
supposedly "should be taken to mean" is often not at all how it is
understood by hearers and readers. Second, generic 'he' is sexist and
indefensible linguistically. Many academic and journalistic style guides
now advise against its use.

As demonstrated by Ann Bodine in 1975, generic 'he' and its promotion
over the centuries represents in part an attempt to stigmatize the use
of singular 'they' as a sex-indefinite, yet animate, third-person
singular pronoun. (Bodine, "Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar:
Singular 'they', sex-indefinite 'he', and 'he or she'," in Language in
Society 4 and also anthologized in Deborah Cameron's recent collection,
A Feminist Critique of Language.)

Bodine cites a number of arguments made in favor of generic 'he' and the
kind of sexist thinking that drove many of these arguments. For example:

Poole (1646): "The Relative [pronoun] agrees with the Antecedent of the
more worthy gender: as, the King and the Queen whom I honor. The
Masculine gender is more worthy than the Feminine."

Wilson (1560): "Let us kepe a natural order, and set the man before the
woman for maners Sake." And "the worthier is preferred and set before.
As a man is sette before a woman."

Roberts (1967) considers the use of 'his or her' awkward and so
advocates avoiding this "by following the convention that,
grammatically, men are more important than women."

Additionally, researchers have found that women and girls may feel
excluded, and may in fact *be* excluded, by the use of (ostensibly)
generic 'he' and 'man.' Spender (1980) catalogs some early work on this
topic, including the following:

Harrison, "Cro-Magnon Woman -- in Eclipse," in Science Teacher (April
1975) pp. 8-11.

Schneider and Hacker, "Sex Role Imagery and the Use of Generic Man," in
American Sociologist 8:1 (Feb 1973) pp. 12-18.

Martyna, "Beyond the He/Man Approach: The Case for Language Change,"
Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5:3 (Spring 1980) pp. 482-93.

Graham, "The Making of a Non-Sexist Dictionary," in Thorne and Henley
(eds.), Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance (Newbury House,
1975). Graham documents numerous examples of pseudo-generic 'he' and
'man' (e.g. Erich Fromm remarks upon "[generic] man's vital interests,"
which he says include "life, food, access to females, etc.").

In sum, there is a wide and deep body of research out there on generic
'he' and related topics. The early, groundbreaking research cited above
will serve as a good introduction to these issues for anyone who is new
to them and curious.


Lisa Cohen Minnick
Assistant Professor of English
923 Sprau Tower
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, Michigan 49008-5331

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list