If you use the singular they, your cause is gaining traction. The Washington Post announced yesterday that it will now accept the word they when it refers to just one person.
Of course, if you’re an old-school English teacher, a grammar Nazi, or otherwise a pedant, the end of the world is approaching. How will humanity survive if a plural pronoun goes with a singular verb? Think of the children!
As it turns out, there’s method in the newspaper’s madness. WaPo copyeditor Bill Walsh wrote that what finally convinced him to make the change was not linguistic laziness. It was a shift in our culture—specifically, the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.
The reason why grammar purists are likely fainting en masse right now is that they is most correctly used to refer to a group of two people or more. I say “most correctly,” because language use involves a continuum of appropriateness (largely dependent upon context), not some forever binary system of Right and Wrong.
Of course, we often use they, them, and their in speech or informal writing when referring to just one person. Consider the sentence Each employee should bring their dish on the morning of the Christmas party.
But in professional contexts and formal writing, the singular they can rub people the wrong way. For centuries, of course, the solution was to use he, him, or his when referring to a person whose sex was unknown or irrelevant: The average American spends most of his free time reading the newspaper. Short and simple, right? Yes, but also sexist—51% of the country is not explicitly included in that example sentence.
Then came pronoun solutions that addressed the gender gap in writing but were wordy (his or her) or awkward to read, especially out loud (he/she, s/he). The linguist John McWhorter recently opined that we should make room for ze as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. (I don’t see that one gaining wide acceptance anytime soon.)
No, Singular they Is Not a Sign of the Apocalypse
So the singular they, you could argue, is a good compromise. It’s short, it’s familiar, and it’s only very rarely confusing because context usually gives readers and speakers all the information they need to understand meaning.
But the best reason of all to use they to refer to one person? We already do it—a lot. (And if you think you never use the singular they, I have bad news for you. You probably do. Just because we know what is “correct” doesn’t mean that we always stick to our own rules.)
Language use falls on a continuum of context-dependent appropriateness, not a binary system of Right and Wrong.
What’s my take? I think the Washington Post‘s decision is a good one. (Facebook probably agrees, too.)
It shows that the publication is willing to reflect language in the way that people actually use it. Having said that, RedLine’s house style is to reserve they for only groups of two or more people (or things). Why? Because sentences that use they for one person can often be rewritten in the plural.
For example, take the sentence from above: Each employee should bring their dish on the morning of the Christmas party. You can easily rewrite it: All employees should bring their dish on the morning of the Christmas party. Done.
It’s not always that easy, of course. But our rule of thumb with writing is that clarity should always prevail. If a sentence can be easily rewritten to avoid a structure that some people still consider egregiously wrong—as in the case of the singular they—then it should be.
In speech, though, anything goes. Grammar purists who try to correct speech and informal writing are on a fool’s errand.
And if anyone disagrees with that, they’re crazy.