Singular ‘they’ in legal English/Geschlechtsneutralität in der englischen Rechtssprache

Mark Liberman at Language Log links to a good summary by the Canadian Department of Justice on the use of they as a singular in legal usage.

The use of the singular “they” is becoming more common not only in spoken but in written English and can prove to be useful to drafters in a legislative context to eliminate gender-specific language and heavy or awkward repetition of nouns.

1. Consider using the third-person pronouns “they”, “their”, “them”, “themselves” or “theirs” to refer to a singular indefinite noun, to avoid the unnatural language that results from repeating the noun.

2. Do not use “they” to refer to a definite singular noun.

3. Ensure that the pronoun’s antecedent is clear.

There is a set of excellent examples showing how they can work well in quite specific cases, and other cases where it doesn’t.

It’s not just a question of avoiding gender-specific language – sometimes an indefinite noun includes he, she and it. For example, a person will sometimes cover artificial/legal persons. But there’s a difference between a Canadian legislative drafter with the support of the government website and a European translator into English.

I’ve often felt the need for this in translation of statutes, but in translation you have no chance of redrafting, so the result may be inelegant either way.

8 thoughts on “Singular ‘they’ in legal English/Geschlechtsneutralität in der englischen Rechtssprache

  1. So “Furthermore the Court allowed us to copy the missing enclosures from their file” was incorrect? I felt much unhappier about “enclosures” although I did shamelessly copy that from the lady who’d translated the claim and the Court Order at 1,25 Euro/line.

    • I think it’s perfectly OK, myself. Some people would object – these are the kind of people who would be ardent Bastian Sick fans if they were German.
      I agree about the ‘enclosures’ – if it is definitely a court document, ‘exhibits’ would be more likely. But I will write an entry on ‘Anhang’! And really, all that matters is that people understand what’s meant. This sentence is perfectly clear.

      • Margaret,

        thank you for the flowers :-)

        ‘Exhibit’ for “Anlage” (not ‘Anhang’) would not be right either. According to German procedure, only the original of a document can be an exhibit (‘Beweisst

        • Yes, of course, I meant ‘Anlage’.

          I see what you mean about ‘exhibit’, but you’re assuming that ‘exhibit’ always means ‘evidence’. Merriam-Webster’s law dictionary, for instance, gives two meanings, one as evidence, and the second as ‘a document labeled with an identifying mark (as a number or letter) and appended to a writing (as a brief) to which it is relevant’. I can’t see how that meaning can be wrong. It reminds me of a German lawyer-translator who rejected ‘prima facie evidence’ in English because it would have been wrong in German.

          You didn’t mention ‘intention to defend’ nor give a context, so I can’t comment on that.

          Personally, I avoid ‘furthermore’ except as part of an argument. In this context, I tend to use ‘in addition’.

  2. I find the acceptance of the use of the singular “they” by a government agency quite interesting. Perhaps the Canadians are somewhat more liberal here than Americans, but as a former English major and current American law student, I can say that this has never ever been considered acceptable in formal American English writing that I know of. Everyone uses it in speech, and it’s infinitely practical. But for some reason not accepted.

    • Yes, I don’t know of any US, or British, recommendations. I know of recommendations not to use it in formal English.

      There is also the problem of reference – if there is a plural antecedent as well as a singular one, it might be confusing.

  3. I don’t know who else is American/ Canadian, but previous contribs are going slightly off-topic. Exhibit is perfectly OK for Anlage, whether or not for court use. For instance, a Statutory Declaration can have Exhibits attached which are sworn to as part of the Dec. See Brooke’s Notary for the form.

    Anhang can also be Notes to a set of German-lingo Accounts, contrasting with the Anlagen which, in the UK at least, are called Appendices.

    If non-Eng. lawyers choose to call any of these attachments or enclosures, then so be it.

    Anyway, the Canadian Dept. of Justice’s guideline is a worthy contribution from a bilingual country where ‘on’ = one or quelqu’un = someone denote both male, female and, in this day and age, androgynous persons.

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