He (pronoun)

Usage

Original and modern scope

As in many languages, in Old English each noun had a grammatical gender (masculine, feminine or neuter), and a pronoun was generally (but not always) selected according to its antecedent's grammatical gender. Thus because dæg ([dæj] 'day') was masculine, one would refer to the day as he.[1][2] Since in Modern English nouns have no grammatical gender (though suffixes like -or or -ess may indicate the sex of their referents), only the sex of the referent determines the pronoun to use.

Generic pronoun

The generic he serves as a pronoun whose antecedent is any noun denoting a social category under which both sexes fall:

  • A good student always does his homework.
  • If someone asks you for help, give it to him.
  • When a customer argues, always agree with him.

Ann Fisher's first prescribed the generic he in her 1745 grammar book A New Grammar. It was thereafter often prescribed in manuals of style and school textbooks until around the 1960s.[3]

Other

In referring to their God or to Jesus Christ, and whenever referring to the Holy Spirit conceived on that occasion to be masculine, some Christians use the capitalized forms He, His, and Him.

Etymology

He has always been the third-person masculine pronoun in English, as this table of the pronouns of Old English shows:

Old English pronouns
NominativeIPAAccusativeDativeGenitive
1stSingular [ɪtʃ]mec / mēmīn
Dual wit[wɪt]uncituncuncer
Plural [weː]ūsicūsūser / ūre
2ndSingular þū[θuː]þec / þēþēþīn
Dual ġit[jɪt]incitincincer
Plural ġē[jeː]ēowicēowēower
3rdSingularMasculine [heː]hinehimhis
Neuter hit[hɪt]hithimhis
Feminine hēo[heːo]hīehierehiere
Plural hīe[hiːə]hīeheomheora

Although the pronoun has always been spelled the same, its Old English pronunciation was closer to that of modern hay.

As the OE table shows, hine and him were respectively the accusative and dative cases of he. These oblique forms persisted in Middle English:

Personal pronouns in Middle English
Below each Middle English pronoun, the Modern English is shown in italics (with archaic forms in brackets)
Person / gender Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
Singular
First ic / ich / I
I
me / mi
me
min / minen [pl.]
my
min / mire / minre
mine
min one / mi selven
myself
Second þou / þu / tu / þeou
you (thou)
þe
you (thee)
þi / ti
your (thy)
þin / þyn
yours (thine)
þeself / þi selven
yourself (thyself)
Third Masculine he
he
him[lower-alpha 1] / hine[lower-alpha 2]
him
his / hisse / hes
his
his / hisse
his
him-seluen
himself
Feminine sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
she
heo / his / hie / hies / hire
her
hio / heo / hire / heore
her
-
hers
heo-seolf
herself
Neuter hit
it
hit / him
it
his
its
his
its
hit sulue
itself
Plural
First we
we
us / ous
us
ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
our
oures
ours
us self / ous silve
ourselves
Second ȝe / ye
you (ye)
eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
you
eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
your
youres
yours
Ȝou self / ou selve
yourselves
Third From Old English heo / hehis / heo[m]heore / her--
From Old Norse þa / þei / þeo / þoþem / þoþeir-þam-selue
modern theythemtheirtheirsthemselves

Many other variations are noted in Middle English sources due to difference in spellings and pronunciations. See Francis Henry Stratmann (1891). A Middle-English dictionary. [London]: Oxford University Press. and A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 TO 1580, A. L. Mayhew, Walter W. Skeat, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1888.

Hence in modern English the dative form him took on the accusative functions of accusative hine [hinə].

See also

References

  1. Peter S Baker, Introduction to Old English Archived 10 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003).
  2. Greville Corbett, Gender, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  3. Patricia T. O'Conner; Stewart Kellerman (21 July 2009). "All-Purpose Pronoun". The New York Times.
  • Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman, 1985.

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