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Question #13736 posted on 03/24/2005 3:12 a.m.

Dear 100 Hour Board,

I know there is a legitimate--though seldom-used and probably archaic--term to use as an androgynous or gender-free replacement of he/she that ISN'T "werf." I know this is true because I read it in some old grammar book (actually it was a website which had grammatical stuff on it, which was referring to some old grammar book on the subject). But I can't remember what it is and I can't even remember where I found the link to the site. Any clues?

- Short-Haired Chick (who is sorry for her profusion of questions of late)

A: Dear SHC,

I'm guessing you were either reading up on your Old English, or you're talking about they. And I'm guessing it's the latter.

With regard to Old English, hit, his, him, and hit are your Old English neuter pronouns (Nom, Gen, Dat, Acc, respectively). They're like it in modern english, except that they can be used for animate as well as inanimate subjects. However, in Old English, if you have Beowulf, Unferth, Modthred, and Wealtheow all walking together, you're going to use the masculine plural to make reference to all of them, so I don't think this is what you're talking about.

Fast forward a couple hundred years. The Modern English pronoun they has been used since the 13th century in a singular context, to refer to a singular, "universal" antecedent. Chaucer, Fielding, Chesterfield, Ruskin, and Austin all used it. Shakespeare, Thackeray, George Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Oscar Wilde used it. You find it in texts from Pilgrim's Progress to Alice in Wonderland. You even find it in the King James Bible, Phillipians 2:3, "Let each esteem the other better than themselves." It's the logical pronoun to fit in the singular gender-neutral gap in the English paradigm.

The use of they in the third person singular only came under attack in the early 18th century. Coleridge knew to reject it by then, according to the rules of "good" grammar, but recognized that he had to reject he for similar reasons -- the universal or ambiguous subject is no more masculine than it is plural. He settled on using it instead, which sounds much weirder to modern ears.

So, werfing aside, English language users generally use they instinctively, and if we can just be rid of language prescriptivists, we can all settle down and use 'they' with impunity.

With apologies to Ambrosia,

-A. A. Melyngoch