I used to be an unrepentant nineteenth century grammarian. I never used a preposition to end a sentence; I took care
to never never to split an infinitive; I knew “who” from “whom”; and I never, ever, used “they” for “he or she”.
I swore off the first three affectations when I realized that not only did was I trying to communicate with one hand tied behind my back, but that the first two restrictions weren’t even native to English in the first place (and the third — “whom” — didn’t have any more place than “thou” or “yclept”). But “they” for “he or she” always galled me. It was the mark of a careless speaker, in a league with “between he and I”.
I made the first step towards changing my mind at Apple Cambridge in 1994, when we were writing the Dylan Interim Reference Manual (DIRM). Jeremy Jones insisted that the DIRM should use gender-neutral language. This wasn’t difficult for the bulk of the manual, which described the Dylan programming language. But it caused some difficulties in the forward and preface.
[I didn’t write the DIRM forward or preface, but we all kibitzed about it.]
The fact that it was hard to fix this forced me to confront a new question: which was more important, publishing the most natural-sounding reference manual, or doing our bit against gender bias in language?
(To believe in this distinction, you have to be something of a linguistic determinist. Doug Hofstadter, in his brilliant and amusing essay “A Person Paper on Purity in Language”, makes perhaps the best case that linguistic determinism is real.)
I decided at the time that nothing I was working on was important enough to be worth continuing sexist traditions — even if being sexist could further its goals, in this case by allowing for sentences that matched the ears of twentieth-century listeners. If I could have saved lives or fought world hunger by writing sexist language, I would have had a conflict. But documenting a programming language? No contest.
Ten years later I decided to admit third person singular “they” into my lexicon. I predict that within a hundred years it will be mainstream anyway (just as “so” can now modify participles, and “fun” is now an adjective — both changes within my lifetime). And it fixes sentences that just can’t be said with “he or she”.
Nobody’s on that train, is he or she?
Marvin Minsky later told me that he faced the same decision in writing The Society of Mind. He said that since he was trying to write about minds, not people, each sentence he rewrote to remove gender ended up more clearly about minds as well.