If people know what you mean, does it matter what words you use? No, it doesn’t matter, until it does. I’ll give you an example. Since English was invented, women in English speaking communities have put up with being referred to as a subclass of men, where our inclusion is ambiguous. Consider this sentence from the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal”. Does the word men here mean humanity, or does it only refer to men? You can see how referring to women as men, except for when you only mean men can be confusing.
Unless you know a little bit about history, the fight for gender inclusive language can seem trivial. It isn’t. In Canada, back in 1876, an act came out, that stated that women are “not persons in matters of rights and privileges”. In 1927, a petition to declare women as people was put before the Supreme Court, and it was denied. It took until 1929 for Canadian women to be granted full inclusion in the human race, and declared ‘people’.
English shifted dramatically through the 1960s to the 1980s, as society evolved and Feminists worked hard to change the language. Many conservative people continued to make the argument that ‘everybody knows that man means man and woman, and so it doesn’t matter either way‘. Yet, for something they claimed didn’t matter, there was an incredible amount of anger and resistance. The ambiguous status of women in language helped to perpetuate traditional social roles and norms.
Consider this job posting from 1962. If you were a woman in need of a job, what would you think of your chances of working in this field?
For those who were on board with inclusive language, in the name of women’s rights or just in terms of communicating with greater precision, there was still the question of how to go about it.
You can see how people experimented with different ideas in essays, books and other texts written in the decades that followed. One early, and rather lazy and dismissive approach was to write in the old-fashioned, imprecise way, and to add a note stating that the author’s use of man, he and him should be understood to include woman, she and her. Another idea was to write it out in full, every time the author wanted to refer to a single person. This led to clunky sentences like this: ‘If a doctor must reschedule an appointment, he or she should inform his or her patients as soon as possible’.
It didn’t take long for us to start avoiding the singular when we could. How much more elegant to write the following. ‘If doctors must reschedule an appointment, they should inform their patients as soon as possible.’ From there, we began to see the use of plural pronouns and possessive nouns and adjectives even in reference to the singular. For me, it felt so natural that I wasn’t conscious that I was doing it. I remember reading over a professor’s comments on an essay I’d written, and being surprised at myself. The professor had pointed out that I’d done this, and how unlike me to make such a basic grammatical error in a final draft.
What neither of us realized at the time was that what we both considered to be a mistake has both a long history, and would go on to become standard English. They has been used as a singular pronoun since the 1300s (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). And today, you can encounter it in conversation and even formal writing.
Language evolves to reflect cultural and societal values and norms. In a rapidly changing world, it is important to think about the words we use, and how they are interpreted by other, in order to further clear communication and fruitful debate. ‘You know what I mean’ doesn’t cut it anymore.
to matter – to be important
put up with – to tolerate
ambiguous – open to more than one interpretation
unless – except on the condition that
trivial – unimportant
came out – appeared/was created
in matters of – in things related to
denied – the opposite of accepted
be granted – to be given or agreed to
shifted – change
either way – in either manner
yet – but
claimed – stated to be
perpetuate – to cause to continue
chances – the probability
on board – to be in agreement with
just – only
go about – to do
rather – to some extent/somewhat
dismissive – to not take seriously
approach – attempt
old-fashioned – not modern/outmoded
clunky – not smooth or elegant
unlike – not similar to
final draft – the edited version, which has been edited
rapidly – quickly
fruitful – productive
doesn’t cut it – not acceptable or satisfactory
1.) What does the second sentence “No, it doesn’t matter, until it does” refer to? What does it mean, within the context of the essay?
2.) Why was in important to make English more precise?
3.) Why do you think there was such a fight to keep the language ambiguous, when people claimed that it didn’t matter either way?
4.) What are some of the ways have people tried to be gender inclusive? What are two early attempts that were discarded, and why didn’t they work well?
A Brief History of ‘Singular’ They – Oxford University Press