Every man for herself
Brian Weatherson at Crooked Timber has re-opened the question of the generic third-person pronoun in English. He says he has been convinced by Geoffrey Pullum that there is no dialect of English in which ‘he’ is a generic third-person pronoun. Perhaps there isn’t, but I think that’s beside the point. The question gets its edge only in reference to written English, or better yet the written English of people who wish to be regarded as well-educated, well-read, etc. It hardly matters whether written English in that sense is a proper dialect.
The obvious candidate to replace generic ‘he’ is ‘they’. Some people object that ‘they’ must be plural, so that e.g. ‘Everyone can eat all they like’ is ungrammatical. There are many languages in which a grammatically plural pronoun is semantically singular. In Tamil, for example, a form which is grammatically a third-person plural is used to refer to people from whom one is supposed to maintain a certain distance, like your brother’s wife (if you are male). Those who think that ‘they’ is somehow essentially semantically plural are in effect trying to freeze usage, which is usually a lost cause (though as I get older I find myself backing more and more lost causes).
In many languages third-person pronouns are used with second-person significance—consider German Sie. ‘Sa majesté’ was standardly used in addressing royalty, for whom direct address as vous (and of course also tu) would have implied intimacy or equality with the person addressed; but the King has no equals nor friends. In French ‘majesté’ is a feminine noun. The pronoun used in anaphoric reference to the person referred to ‘sa majesté’ is therefore ‘elle’. Even if ‘sa majesté’ happens to be the king elle-même.
In comments to Weatherson’s post, some people wondered what the reflexive of generic ‘they’ should be. I think ‘themselves’ is just fine. If ‘they’ is construed semantically as singular, then ‘selves’ can be too. But I have seen ‘themself’ in student papers. It sounds strange to me. But so does ‘elle’ in reference to Louis XIV.
That the supposedly neutral ‘he’ really isn’t: an anecdote. One of the first times I encountered she used generically was in a text on modern algebra—something like “the reader may fill in the details of the proof for herself”. The momentary shock convinced me that the stereotype I was using when reading about “the mathematician” (and thus “the reader” of this and other mathematics texts) was without a doubt male.
Added 22 Oct 2004. Prompted by some graffiti about Arnold Schwarzenegger (“they are a prophet”) Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log offers observations on ‘they’,
See also Collin vs., which has a link to Hofstader’s essay on the generic use of “whiteman”. Julian Burnside has examples of generic ‘they’from the last 550 years. His essay is well worth reading if you want arguments on behalf of ‘they’.