August 21, 2004

Generic He?

Geoff Pullum argues that the Supreme Court of Canada were correct in considering he to be an exclusively masculine pronoun and that I was therefore wrong to criticize them for their reasoning in the Persons Case. English is not my area of expertise, so I would normally defer to Geoff, but I am a native speaker of English, and at least as far as my own judgments are concerned, he simply has the facts wrong. His examples:

Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.
Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?
which he takes to be ungrammatical, are grammatical for me.

In any case, this is not merely a matter of grammatical analysis, but of the construction of statutes, where principles other than, and in addition to, those of grammar may be relevant. Of relevance here was the Interpretation Act of 1889, which in section 1, sub-section 2

provides that words importing the masculine gender shall include the females.
as the Law Lords put it in their opinion. This is of course a restatement of section 4 of Lord Brougham's Act of 1850.

Posted by Bill Poser at August 21, 2004 02:59 AM