At some point in my school years, I remember being taught to use he/she for a singular subject. Many English speakers incorrectly use the pronoun “they.” Other variations were offered, such as “a person,” “a student,” etc.
It had been the tradition in the past to simply use “he.” By default, the pronoun is left masculine. This is true in many languages and has never bothered me. In my politically correct hometown, however, that is not an option. In my recent teacher training we were even advised not to teach students words ending in “-man.” That includes mailman, fireman, policeman, businessman, etc. We should teach a gender-neutral form such as “mail carrier, firefighter,” etc. My trainer described a MEN WORKING (construction site) sign that left her steaming every time she passed it.
All this pretty much went in one of my ears and out the other.
Meanwhile, I opened up some textbooks that I bought recently for teaching. Each has an explanation in the introduction of their (the editors’) approach to personal pronouns.
“…in this book you will find instructions such as: If a student touches the wrong color, they have to sit down. The reader may disagree with our solution, but we ask them to blame us, the publishers, not the author. Languages do change, and the English language needs to change its usage of gender-marked pronouns when they are clearly inappropriate. This is our solution.” (copyright 2002)*
Now for the next book.
“Apologies are made for the generalized use of the masculine pronoun. It is meant to be used for simplicity’s sake, rather than to indicate a philosophical viewpoint. We feel that the s/he, her/him, his/her forms, while they may be philosophically appealing, are confusing.” (copyright 1983)**
I think I can see the progression here. In the 80’s an apology was enough. By 2000, proper grammar must be thrown out in order to sound “appropriate.” I attended school in the 90’s, so I suppose we were in a transition period: “He” alone was not appropriate, and “he/she,” while wordy, would both satisfy all parties and retain grammatical precision.
I prefer the way I was taught. Although, I suppose everyone does. Old habits die hard.
* Kealey, James and Donna Inness. "Shenanigames." Brattleboro, Vermont: Pro Lingua.
** Allen, Virginia French. "Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary." New York: Oxford University Press.