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Friday, February 8, 2013

Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’ | Stan Carey, Sentence first

Here's another article in the continuing debate about using they with singular verbs.

In things I've been reading, it seems this debate is over among British writers and editors, like blogger Carey. But it's still alive in the United States. I believe, however, that the trend in the U.S. is toward a singular they, and I support it. Using a singular they is a common-sense way to deal with outdated English uses; namely, to get rid of "he" (as well as "his" and "him") in generic uses that apply to both women and men.

I especially like Carey's argument using the singular you:

People who complain about singular they rarely extend their censure to singular you – but they could, if they wanted to be more consistent, and what peever doesn’t? You was once exclusively plural but crept into widespread singular use ....
Where then are the howls of protest over singular you from devotees of logic and order? You would do well to find any: it’s just not the done thing to complain about singular you nowadays. No one would take you seriously.
Carey concludes:
Peeves about singular they are unsupported by historical and present usage and unsupportable by appeal to grammar or logic. You don’t have to use it, but resistance invites unnatural awkwardness and unnecessary exclusion. Why not get on board with it?
Here's my related advice 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 Some respected writing authorities now suggest this change in language as we eliminate the outdated use of he, him and his as references to both men and women.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.
Carey's column is featured today, Feb. 8, in my daily online paper,
Garbl's Plain English Paragraphs, available at the Plain Language tab above and by free email subscription.

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