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Friday, January 18, 2013

Grammar: Singular “they”: everyone has their own opinion | The Economist

And the debate continues. Should the English language continue to transform itself as the use of words changes through the centuries to meet current and coming needs? 

In this article, the blogger argues that they should be considered both a singular and plural pronoun. This issue arises when choosing a singular verb or a plural verb to go with they. I agree with the blogger.

Responding to one common argument against that change, the blogger writes:
Yes, they is normally plural, and everyone takes a singular verb. But this is a case for saying, simply, "they is both singular and plural." After all, you is both singular and plural, after going down a long and winding etymological road. And singular they is no more absurd than sexless he. The conservative-traditional "Every student must buy his own books" is silly in countries (like Britain and America) where more university students are female than male. And we go beyond inaccurate to offensive in the case of the New York lawmaker who said "Everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion."
Mignon Fogarty, the well-known Grammar Girl, commented on this issue a couple of years ago. Her column goes into more detail--and advises more alternatives--than The Economist blog. But in answer to the question "Is 'They' the Future of Generic Pronouns," she writes:
I will state for the record that I am a firm believer that someday "they" will be the acceptable choice for this situation. English currently lacks a word that fits the bill, and many people are already either mistakenly or purposely using "they" as a singular generic personal pronoun; so it seems logical that rules will eventually move in that direction.
Here's my advice for they and its related pronouns in Garbl's Editorial Style Manual:
their, them, they The day may come--and should--when these plural pronouns are accepted as singular pronouns that don't note a person's sex. Some respected writing authorities now suggest this change in language as we eliminate the outdated use of he, him and his as references to both men and women. This updated usage would be similar to use of the pronouns you and your for both one person and more than person, taking a plural verb even when mentioning one person.
Still, for now, consider the potential reaction of your audience--and the reaction you would prefer as the writer or editor--before applying this use. Meanwhile, try other acceptable uses, especially using the plural pronouns to refer to plural nouns.
Both The Economist and the Grammar Girl articles are featured today, Jan. 18, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices. It's available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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