In case you missed it, the apocalypse is upon us. The American Dialect Society, an organization dedicated to the proper use of words, has made the singular they its Word of the Year. Or should I say the American Dialect Society has made they their Word of the Year?
Either way, I guess. It’s only a matter convention, right? Who cares? While you are at it, go ahead and eat the family cat and urinate in the street. No one will mind. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Just because some proper fussbudget told you they was plural shouldn’t stop you from doing what you please in 2016. There are no rules now. They won’t mind. (By the way, the ADS made #blacklivesmatter its Word of the Year for 2014. That’s not even a word, for crying out loud.)
I have spent roughly a third of my adult life editing around the word they as if it were a scorpion composed entirely of letters skittering across the desert of some writer’s dusty prose. You could argue I could have spent my time on more productive concerns. All I know is it just makes my skin crawl to read
The U.S. Department of Agriculture changed their rules today… or
Every American deserves their tax refund … or
Even writing these examples made their head hurt!
The Washington Post says it’s OK to conflate the singular and the plural in this way. The slackers who took control of the English language say I’m a prude for thinking differently. This guy right here says people like me, well, they can get stuffed!
They will win, because your hero is outnumbered. I will continue to change they into grammatically correct pronouns because it’s the right thing to do. I think you should as well. …
I am not obtuse. I get the issue with gender-neutral pronouns. It used to be said that he would always work as a singular and that “the masculine embraces the feminine.” In other words, don’t worry sweetheart, he stands for she. That kind of BS does make you want to misuse a word or two. I get it.
But the English language is such a blossom. There are so many ways to make it bloom on your keyboard. Writing needn’t be easy; it needs to be good.
The spoken word is different. For some reason, using they in the singular while speaking isn’t as hard on the ear as seeing it in black and white is on the eye. Perhaps that is because our voices contain so many more shades of gray. I don’t know.
Look, The Chicago Manual of Style offers a half-dozen ways to avoid making the mistake (let’s call it what it is), from repeating the noun to writing around the problem. Here’s one now: Try making the antecedent plural before the pronoun. Then you can they, they, they all the way home. Instead of:
The writer must set an example for their readers, try
Writers must set an example for their readers.
How hard is that?
— Clay Lambert