What pronoun(s) to use when talking about men and women?

I’ve recently been updating the main Liberal Democrat election law book, and been faced with what to do about this text found up near the front:

Throughout this book, “he” is used as a generic term to encompass both female and male.

It is tempting to just leave this as it is for the frank reason that changing the approach means quite a lot of editing through the book, even with some search and replace to make the easier changes. (I do wonder how much that simple inertia explains the survival of this approach over previous updates to the book.)

Tempting but… given all the important issues around gender imbalance in politics, that inertia is something I’m not comfortable giving in to unless it is also in its own right a reasonable approach. If I was writing a book from scratch, would I be happy with writing out that approach afresh and using “he” all the way through?

In fact, when I have indeed started text from scratch in the past, I’ve usually gone for using “they” as a non-gender specific singular word, and never taken the ‘put a caveat up front’ approach. But the issues this raises did get me thinking again as to what is appropriate – and asking others, including in a thread on Facebook (other people’s privacy settings may prevent you seeing all of the contributions).

One comment occasionally made to me has been that using “he” to mean “he or she” is so trivial a thing as not to be worth worrying about. Well, if you are writing some text, you take care of trivial details all the time. Put the a before the i in detail. Put a full stop at the end of a sentence and not an asterisk. And so on. If you’re going to bother about those sort of things, then gender pronouns are worth some thought too.

It’s true that whatever I choose to do is hardly going to make a huge impact one way or another on the wider equalities issues – a point reinforced all the more brutally by me writing this just after reading about some of the horrors in Iraq.

But gender stereotyping that discriminates against certain people having certain roles is, in modern Britain, to a significant extent about the accumulation of lots of small decisions, biases and slights. Taking a step against that is as small – but also as worthwhile – as thinking it’s worth casting a vote in an election when you know your one vote will still only be one amongst many, even only one amongst millions in the elections with our largest electorates.

The second thing the discussion has firmed up in my mind is that objecting to using “they” in the singular for being grammatically incorrect really doesn’t persuade me.

I’m happy to lament some of the changes in the English language. You can certainly catch me moaning about how “disinterested” has lost its previous distinct and useful meaning, getting muddled up now with “uninterested”. Yet a huge part of the English language’s history, success, charm and power is its evolution in meaning over time. And attitudes towards gender have evolved massively. So it doesn’t convince me at all to insist that in this area of all areas the meaning of a word can’t change at all.

Even so, it clearly grates for some people, and I should remember that using “s/he” looks plain ugly to me. If I’m going to rule out one thing for grating on me I shouldn’t be too unforgiving on people who say something else grates.

Which, of the main options, leaves alternating between she and he, or perhaps just using she all the way through. The former is neutral, the latter is a subtle way of making a point. Or perhaps it is “they” after all.

Decisions, decisions and my copy deadline is approaching…

UPDATE: Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting reactions to this post on Twitter, including one that provides a link to examples of “they” being used in the singular in the Bible.

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