Gender-neutral language debated in the House of Lords

There was an interesting and well-informed debate in the House of Lords in December 2013 on gender-neutral language in legislation.  One illustrative highlight:

In my view, it was perfectly reasonable for Jack Straw in 2007 to call for an end to any such male stereotyping in our use of English, specifically rejecting the Interpretation Act 1978 and its reiteration of the convention that masculine pronouns are deemed to include feminine reference. If it ever worked, that convention no longer does, and there have been convincing psycholinguistic experiments showing that sentences such as “Anyone parking his car here will be prosecuted” predominantly call up images of a man doing the illicit parking.

To return to the policing Bill, we find that most amendments are thoroughly sensitive in this respect, with anaphoric reference employing “he or she” or repetition—“a person … that person”. But among the minority using the traditional “he”, there are striking cases, especially in Amendments 93 to 95, where the singular masculine pronoun is used no fewer than 18 times. In all of them, the antecedent of “he” is surely a tell-tale phrase: “the judge”. Since we do indeed have a judiciary that is largely manned by men, it is hard to believe that the use of “he” in these amendments really means “he or she” rather than endorsing one particular male stereotype as a fact of life.

(The speaker here is Lord Quirk, who founded the Survey of English Usage in 1959. I really don’t like the fact that we have an unelected upper house in the UK, but the fact we get contributions like this gives me pause.)

5 thoughts on “Gender-neutral language debated in the House of Lords

  1. Thanks for the link – I’m a big Geoff Pullum (and Language Log) fan! I think there’s a more charitable reading of Lord Quirk’s closing paragraph on singular ‘they’, though. The paragraph finishes:
    “…we hear it daily in this House and read it daily in the press, but it has no place in the language of statute, where its comfortably colloquial imprecision is seriously unwelcome.”
    So perhaps his main concern was that in the context of statute it might be ambiguous as to number, not that it’s generally rare or objectionable. In fact, since he’s a descriptivist about grammar, you might think that acknowledging it’s heard and read daily comes close to accepting that it can be correct…

  2. Many people claim to be upset by the fact that the House of Lords is unelected. Any such emotion is swiftly displaced by a simple comparison of a debate in the House of Lords and a debate in the elected House of Commons: the latter is almost always uninformed, filled with useless demagogues, and generally depressing; whereas the former is quite often progressive, intelligent and generally of a high quality.

    Indeed, many of the most illiberal Bills devised by the government in recent years failed in the House of Lords. Liberals: be careful what you wish for.

  3. That is true, anon. I’ve often mused on that point. The Lords don’t have to worry about pleasing a fickle public, so they can act as they see best, not as they think will best win them votes.

    But I’m not sure that shows worries about their unelected status are misplaced. There are good reasons for thinking that democracy is a good thing. The fact that democracy has unpalatable side effects as it were, is a problem that needs to be thought through.

    (An aside: surely it’s not only Liberals who think democracy is a good thing?)

  4. Well, nobody seems to have told the judges themselves – I guess high quality debate isn’t everything:

    “In expressing the task faced by trial judges we have frequently needed to refer to the individual judge. Using gender neutral phraseology can, in a context such as this, be distracting. For that reason alone we have called the judge ‘he’ and, of course, ‘he’ includes every judge, male or female.”
    – Crown Court Benchbook, p.vii. (available at )

    (I mean, seriously. Even if it *were* distracting, couldn’t we expect crown court judges to handle a little minor distraction? I manage to ignore the distraction of non-gender-neutral language all the time.)

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