August 18, 2004

Canada Supreme Court gets the grammar right

It grieves me deeply to defend the benighted and probably sexist dimwits of what must have been Canada's most stupid collection of Supreme Court justices ever, but I'm afraid I have to. The judicial nitwits who ruled that women are not persons were right on a point of grammar, and Bill Poser has it wrong.

People make some cruel jokes about Canada. (I'm thinking of Ambrose Bierce's entry for "Man" in The Devil's Dictionary, which describes Homo sapiens as a species which "infests all habitable parts of the globe, and Canada"; and a joke David Perlmutter told me about how it was originally dreamed that Canada would be a country that married American efficiency with British culture and French cuisine, but through a terrible error it ended up with American culture, French efficiency, and British cuisine.) One might have thought we should just be grateful that Bill Poser had pointed out another thing about poor Canada that we could mock: it had a Supreme Court that (at least in 1927) was too stupid to figure out that when statutes said "if any person shall... then he shall..." they might mean the he to cover women too. They actually ruled that those occurrences of he (the forms he, him, his, and himself) meant that women were being assumed not to be persons, and had to be overruled by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, those guardians of the rights of women. "You'd think that the Justices of the Supreme Court would have been clever enough to recognize that he was used generically, not specifically in reference to men, wouldn't you?", asks Poser, in a rhetorical question biased toward a positive answer.

Well, no. It's my duty to report that The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes the position that he is never generic, i.e., sex-neutral. Chapter 5, by Rodney Huddleston and John Payne (see page 492), talks about "Purportedly sex-neutral he", and on page 494 they give evidence that it just isn't true that this pronoun may be used in a sex-neutral way: if it could, then there would be nothing at all wrong with saying

*Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.

But that's a grammatical catastrophe, or a silly joke. One couldn't possibly think that was normal usage. Likewise with

*Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?

That is not how we say things in English. (The commonest way to get around the gender problem here is to use singular they: Was it your father or your mother who broke their leg on a ski trip?; Either the husband or the wife has perjured themself. Shakespeare used it; Jane Austen used it; loads of fine authors use it. Get used to it. And if you have a usage book like Strunk and White that declares singular they to be an error, throw that book away.)

Yes, I grant you the Canadian Supreme Court were a bit myopic on the legal issue (women were voting already, as Poser points out; if they weren't voting as persons, then what were they, some sort of electorally competent barnyard animal?). But by The Cambridge Grammar's well-substantiated account they had it right on the grammar, and Poser has it wrong. Anyone who thinks the word he has a sex-neutral use is kidding themself. When someone says The person chosen as provost will need to know his stuff, they are talking as if the person chosen as the new provost will be a man. If you're not assuming that, don't use he.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 18, 2004 09:18 PM