January 15, 2016
When a writer uses 'they' to refer to one person, they is now right.
But first, let's back up a bit.
It's so easy to offend people without meaning to.
As an example, suppose a reader is checking out this page and he -
"Why did you say 'he'?" you ask.
"I don't know," I answer cautiously, "I was using 'he' as a gender neutral word. I didn't mean that the reader had to be a he."
And then I think for a moment and agree that there's no reason to use 'he' when I mean 'he or she'.
So I try it again...
"suppose a reader is checking out this page and he or she" -
That feels worse. If every time I refer to this reader I have to say 'he or she', 'him or her', or 'his or hers', I'll end up drawing more attention to this point I was throwing away - this word that stands in for the reader - and miss the bigger point I'm trying to make.
I could alternate. I could use 'he' for the reader one time and 'she' another.
That seems awkward.
I can use 'she' for the reader throughout.
I'm not opposed to that solution in general but it fails my aims in two ways. First, it doesn't accomplish my goal of a gender neutral term. Second, there are times I'm calling out the reader as making a mistake. My next words might be "forgets to ..." or some other negative. Specifying that the reader is a 'she' may come across as an unintended slight against female readers.
For the most part, I try to eliminate the pronoun by writing something like this:
"Suppose a reader is checking out a page and the reader..."
This is awkward and leads to convoluted writing.
Fortunately, we now have an officially acceptable alternative. Something that many of us used in the past incorrectly is now legal: when a writer is avoiding specifying gender, they may use 'they' to refer to one individual.
There, I've done it in that last sentence.
It used to feel so wrong. Now, suddenly, I'm ok with it.
According to the Washington Post, "Singular 'they,' the gender-neutral pronoun, has been named the Word of the Year by a crowd of over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on Friday evening."
Although writers have used this dodge for years to avoid saying 'he or she', the article explains that actually, "what gave this word new prominence was its usefulness as a way to refer to people who don't want to be called 'he' or 'she.'"
In reading the way the author of the article explained the situation, it is clear that they is right.