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The Importance of Using Gender-Neutral Language

SNA (London) — Debates about the proper use of pronouns in the English language are nothing new, and in the contemporary era there is a revived appreciation of their role in creating gender inclusivity.

In 1850, England passed the Interpretation Act, which made significant procedural reforms such as dividing legislation into meaningful sections, and other forgotten provisions for interpreting statutes. Famously, the Interpretation Act of 1850 stated that “the masculine includes the feminine,” creating a situation where the pronoun ‘he’ could be written instead of ‘he or she.’ Obviously, this didn’t mean that ‘he’ was generic when it came to the possibility of women voting, holding elected office, or entering a profession like medicine. What it meant was that a woman could be described with the phrase, “he is to start working immediately.”

Recently, loosening cultural and political standards have allowed for a greater variety of gender and sexual identities to be expressed than was the case with the original Interpretation Act. It is now more typical to find legal codes that use gender-neutral language, in many wealthy countries, with the pronoun ‘they’ now taking over from what was once exclusively ‘he.’

The shift has caused a great deal of conflict, particularly in social media contexts, that tend to amplify extreme feelings and distort the reality of public discussion. Critically, one must remember that the gender-neutral ‘they’ isn’t particularly new in the English language, and also, using such language is scientifically proven to lead to better outcomes for women and non-straight people.

Gender-neutral language has detractors who will often claim that using ‘they’ is grammatically incorrect. In reality, the use of a singular ‘they’ as a non-specific pronoun is centuries older than the singular ‘you.’ English texts have been using ‘they,’ in some form, since the 14th century, whereas ‘you’ has only displaced ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ since the 17th century.

Chaucer uses ‘they’ in The Canterbury Tales, and in essentially the same way that Jane Austen uses them more recently in Mansfield Park. Of course, many texts don’t explicitly use ‘they’ in a gender-neutral sense, often applying it as a non-specific placeholder for gendered language (ex: “I don’t know where they are going tonight”).

As a result, it is true that a non-binary person using ‘they/them’ pronouns is somewhat unprecedented and sounds clunky to modern ears. Yet, it is also worth considering the fact that for centuries monarchs used a royal ‘we’ in all their communications. ‘They/them’ pronouns are certainly no stranger than King Louis XIV expressing his individual opinion on a dinner by saying, “we enjoyed the wine and found the sheep to be exquisitely tasty.” Grammar is highly complex and more than dynamic enough to make room for inclusive language.

None of these historical details explain why ‘they/them’ pronouns have recently become so widespread.

A large part of the reason is that other attempts have failed. From the mid-19th century to the 1970s, more than two hundred different pronouns were defined by writers and scholars seeking to undermine the all-inclusive ‘he,’ and later, ‘he or she.’ None caught on. The use of ‘they/them’ emerged from queer and feminist discussions in the 1990s, when non-binary, trans, and gender-nonconforming identities became far more openly expressed in rich countries. A major benefit of using ‘they is that rather than pronouns like ‘zir,’ ‘they’ already has a prehistory in English that can be built upon.

And quite unlike the other experiments, the use of ‘they’ has been successful. Both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary have added the gender-neutral sense of ‘they’ to existing definitions, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association now recommends the use of gender-inclusive singular ‘they’ in clinical settings and scholarly writing. Amazingly, it’s on the verge of becoming the new normal.

It is worth concluding by explaining why using ‘they/them’ is important, besides the feelings and dignity of the person who uses those pronouns. New research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America suggests that using gender-neutral language reduces mental biases that favor men, and makes it more likely that the speaker will feel that women and non-straight people are their equal. Gender-inclusive language seems to make real differences when it comes to reducing gender stereotyping.

That much is not surprising. Whether speakers like it or not, when a pronoun is used to describe someone, that pronoun almost immediately introduces cultural biases into the conversation. Language actively restructures and reconditions one’s worldview.

While a lot of the language politics that often comes with pronouns can be tremendously exhausting, it is important not to downplay their importance. New pronouns mean new thoughts about the people who are around us, which is a necessary step towards non-patriarchal ideas about them. After all, there was a reason that it was such a huge fight to get rid of the all-inclusive ‘he’ as outlined in the original Interpretation Act.

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