Language in Society

Articles: Social Assumptions of English Style

Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular ‘they’, sex-indefinite ‘he’, and ‘he or she’1

Ann Bodinea1

a1 Rutgers University


This paper demonstrates that prior to the beginning of the prescriptive grammar movement in English, singular ‘they’ was both accepted and widespread. It is argued that the prescriptive grammarians' attack on singular ‘they’ was socially motivated, and the specific reasons for their attack are discussed. By analogy with socially motivated changes in second person pronouns in a variety of European languages, it is suggested that third person pronoun usage will be affected by the current feminist opposition to sex-indefinite ‘he’ – particularly since the well-established alternative, singular ‘they’, has remained widespread in spoken English throughout the two and a half centuries of its ‘official’ proscription. Finally, the implications of changes in third person singular, sex-indefinite pronouns for several issues of general interest within linguistics are explored. (Language change, sex roles and language, language attitudes, language planning, prescriptive grammar, pronouns.)


1 Portions of this paper were presented at the Conference on Women and Language, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, April 1973 and at the 1973 Summer Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. I am grateful to Adele Abrahamson, Dell Hymes, and Albert Marckwardt for valuable criticism. Helpful comments were also received from Nancy Bonvillain, Susan Davis, Anne Foner, Marilyn Johnson, Michael Moffatt, Gloria Nemerowicz, and Ann Parelius.