Good News, You Guys Everyone! English Is Becoming More Inclusive

A win for humanity is a loss for mankind.

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In 1789, William Marshall observed a linguistic anomaly that had arisen in the vale of Gloucester:

Beside these and various other misapplications (as they for them - I for me, &c.), an extra pronoun is here in use - ou : a pronoun of the singular number; - analogous with the plural they ; - being applied either in a masculine, a feminine, or a neuter sense. Thus "ou will" expresses either he will, she will, or it will.

Gloucester's innovation, alas, did not spread very far--and certainly not to the States. Which is evidenced not just by the fact that Neil Armstrong took his giant leap not for humanity, but for "mankind," but also by the more recent fact that a Google search for "he she vs they" returns more than 300 million results. When it comes to our language's pronouns, we are confused. We are awkward. And we are, worst of all, stuck with what we have. We know that many words and conventions in our language inherently exclude half the population. But we know as well that this linguistic sexism is so common as to seem benign. Neil Armstrong, after all, wasn't snubbing the ladies; he was fitting his time.

Still. For a number of reasons--from the psychological to the symbolic--the default masculine is problematic. Even (and especially) when it comes to such small, ubiquitous words as "he" and "him." "Since at least the early 1970s," writes the gender theorist Brian Earp in a new paper published in Journal for Communication and Culture, "feminist linguists such as Wendy Martyna, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Janice Moulton, and others ... have made compelling arguments against the use of he/man language, advocating its abolition wherever it may be found." 

Which led him to wonder: "Has anyone been listening? Have there been any changes in sexist language use over the past thirty (or so) years?"

Yes, he answers. And: yes. Overall, Earp concludes, our use of masculine pronouns--what Martyna calls an "implicit equation of maleness with humanness"--is declining. "He" as our default pronoun is giving way to the more inclusive "he or she," or the even more inclusive "their." And "mankind" is giving way, demonstrably, to "humankind." 

It's The End of Men ... English pronoun edition.

Earp's findings, published in a paper in the Journal for Communication and Culture, are based on three separate-but-related studies. In the first, Earp used the rich archives of JSTOR, the repository of academic papers, to analyze the use of the term "mankind"--as well as the gendered pronouns "he," "she," and the like--in work published between 1970 and 2000. In the second, Earp applied that search-term approach to the same thirty-year period in that rich archive of more popular writing: the New York Times. In the third, Earp created his own experiment asking a sample of participants to complete a sentence: "The moral individual is ..." He then scanned the open-field replies for the pronouns they contained.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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