In an earlier discussion (Why Words Matter: Gender Neutral Language), I noted that instead of using “he” as the generic pronoun to indicate all humankind, one could use the word “they.” And in lieu of using “they,” since many people don’t like using that plural word in place of the singular “he,” one might rewrite the sentence so “he” is unnecessary, or might find some other solution.
What I didn’t mention, since we were emphasizing something else, was that “they” really was the correct pronoun to use in English, until sometime in the eighteenth century. And then, according to a New York Times article(**) from a couple of years ago, a grammarian named Anne Fisher made a change that became the “official rule.”
If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.
As the article points out, it was customary as far back as Chaucer’s time to use “they” in the universal generic way, for both singular and plural. and the authors of the NYT article mention other well-known writers who used it too: Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope. So those of us in the “pro-they” camp do have some reputable authorities backing us up.
Writers, editors, and general grammarians are fiercely divided over whether “they” should be acceptable in today’s writing. This dispute is similar to the “split infinitive” argument, with each side furiously adamant and indignant at the very thought of adopting the other side’s usage. (“It’s just wrong,” they each say, and you can almost hear the stomping foot.) So you’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want to use “they” or continue alternating “he or she” or some other configuration. And if you’re writing for a client, you will of course follow the rules they set out.
But for my own writing, I cheerfully use “they” whenever I feel it’s needed. It has a long and distinguished history. And I stand, after all, in very good company.
(** New York Times: All-Purpose Pronoun, by Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman, July 21, 2009)