Today’s blog article has kindly been provided by Caroline Day, Partner and Patent Attorney at Haseltine Lake LLP, which is one of our Charter signatories.

Caroline writes: “Folks, I wanted to pass on some good news, just in case you hadn’t heard: it’s officially OK to use ‘they’ in the singular!

In other words, it is no longer grammatically necessary to pointlessly gender a subject of a contract clause or legal fiction, such as the skilled person or the moron in a hurry. And by ‘no longer necessary’, I should of course say ‘once more unnecessary’, because from the 14th to the late 19th century, nothing could have made more sense – I mean, why force a gender onto something when you had no actual knowledge?

Then in 1890 it was decided that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females” in Acts of Parliament, officially anointing the idea that ‘he’ worked fine as a generic.  It doesn’t though. When someone says ‘he’, we imagine a man.

Thank goodness it took a mere 125ish years for that patriarchal blip to be addressed. In 2015, the singular ‘they’ was announced to be ‘word of the year’ by the American dialect society as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun” (so said Bill Walsh of the Washington Post, and as you may have guessed already, I agree).  The UK may not have made such grand gestures, but since 2006, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage has declared the singular ‘they’ as “unremarkable“. An excellent example of British understatement.

And so I would encourage anyone who may have defaulted to a ‘he’ out of habit or training to consider, henceforth and forever more, the might of the singular ‘they’.  I mean, if I was being a true campaigning feminist, I’d suggest you try out ‘she’, and that you keep using ‘she’ until you’ve balanced every default ‘he’ you’ve ever written before giving ‘they’ a whirl.  But who has the time for that sort of record keeping?  Just make the switch to ‘they’, I say. After all, language is plastic and transforms to mirror the world we live in – equality need not be sacrificed in speech or on the page, so why not choose a word, which is both correct and useful in reshaping the world to be a fairer place?”

Thanks Caroline for this article.  Of course, the use of ‘they’ is also incredibly important to remove assumptions on gender, for example when talking about a person’s partner.  The pronoun “they” is becoming increasingly popular among people who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be categorised as one particular gender.  The polite thing now is to ask what pronoun people like to use – we do this on our IP Out event registration forms, for example.  For these reasons, earlier this year, we submitted comments to the European Patent Office requesting that the EPO remove gender-specific terminology before finalising the new Rules of Procedure of the Boards of Appeal.  

If you would like to write a blog article for IP Inclusive, on anything diversity related, please email Emily Teesdale of Abel & Imray. Guest bloggers are always very welcome!

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