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Is use of the singular "they/their/them" in legal writing and/or legislative drafting recognized to be acceptable / appropriate?

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  • More details? Using the impersonal/generic singular they is unlikely to cause a problem. The personal use for a non-binary or genderqueer person is less established in English although AFAIK there's no requirement about what version of English is used in legal documents.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 5, 2023 at 9:49
  • Do answers need to be contemporary or would answers from before the singular they was part of the English lamguage do? I.e. the 11th century. Commented Jun 6, 2023 at 1:01

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Guidance from the Government of Canada

Yes. The Government of Canada's guide on legislative drafting has a section on gender-neutral language. It emphasizes that "gender-specific language should not be used in legislation." The first-listed alternative strategy (alongside others) is to "use the singular 'they' and its other grammatical forms... to refer to indefinite pronouns and singular nouns."

It acknowledges that "[i]n the past, the masculine pronoun was commonly used in the English language to signify the non-specific 'he or she'" but that "[i]t is now generally well-accepted that gender-specific language should only be used for references to persons of one gender or the other."

One example from the guide:

Every taxpayer shall file their tax return no later than April 30 of the year following the year in which they earned the income on which they are paying taxes.

Guidance from the British Columbia Law Institute

In the guide, Gender Diversity in Legal Writing, the institute explains:

Canadian lawyers no longer write law, or write about the law, as if it only applies to men of European descent who own real property. ... Language and the law continue to evolve, moving towards even more inclusive language in legal writing. ... The highest levels of our profession have recognized that gender inclusivity is a matter of justice and professionalism. The British Columbia courts require all counsel to identify themselves and their pronouns. ... We have adopted gender-inclusive ways of referring to people, in particular the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.

The guide says:

They/them is also used as a gender non-specific singular pronoun when a writer does not know a person’s pronouns.

Just like the pronoun “you,” they/them can be used in singular or plural forms.

One example it provides:

Minister Williams said they misspoke when they said their budget was “balanced to the last penny.”

French text

It is slightly more complex to render French legal writing to be gender-inclusive, given that adjectives and third-person plural pronouns are gendered, but the Government of Canada's Translation Bureau shares several resources, including guidance from the Commission de la construction du Québec, and an article from the Canadian Bar Review.

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    Traditionally, in English "they" has always been used instead of "he" or "she" when either the gender wasn't known, or when the gender was completely irrelevant to the situation. Other languages are different.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jun 4, 2023 at 16:10
  • Doesn't France use the term citizen or person when using non-gendered targets?
    – Trish
    Commented Jun 4, 2023 at 19:39
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In U.S. law this is more a matter of style than a formal requirement. I have seen the singular "they" in contracts, but some contract drafters prefer to use the plural entirely, or to use a "he or she" construction.

The singular "he" to have the same meaning as the singular "they" used to be common place and is still often fond in statutes and contracts, but is gradually falling out of favor.

Legislative use is up to the legislators involved, for the most part. Judges aren't confused by it when it is used in that fashion.

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