I said pound sand, sticklers

Yesterday I sent out this tweet: "Just waved through a singular 'they.' Pound sand, sticklers."

The singular they was in a sentence on The Sun's editorial page: "Although experts say only a tiny proportion of seriously mentally ill people ever resort to acts of violence, the odds of someone doing so are greatly increased if they aren't in treatment or refuse to stay in it."

There followed a good deal of back-and-forth on Facebook and Twitter, with @GRAMMARHULK and @PreciseEdit (David Bowman) having what diplomats call a full and frank exchange of views on the latter.

What we want in English is sometimes called an epicene pronoun. That is, in cases like the sentence from the editorial, we want a non-gender-specific pronoun to refer back to a non-gender-specific antecedent.* As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, points out, we have just such a pronoun: they. It is attested to by a number of citations in MWDEU: "The Pardoner's Prologue" in the Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, Swift, Byron, Thackeray, Austen, Orwell, Auden.

The sticklers argue, of course, that this is impermissible, that a plural pronoun must not be matched with a singular antecedent or the walls of civilization will come tumbling down. (Yet they don't appear to mind much that you, originally a plural pronoun, now couples epicenely and promiscuously with both singular and plural antecedents. Having swallowed a camel, they gag at a gnat.)

In the argument (conducted civilly, I add) between @GRAMMARHULK and @PreciseEdit, we see what appears to be a typical liberal/conservative divide, of the kind common in disputes over usage. The lefty is all enthusiastic about some novelty, and the righty resists until the novelty either drops off or becomes established. It's an evolutionary view of the operation of language.

But in this case the polarities are reversed. The HULK and I are arguing for a long-established usage in English, and the sticklers are holding fast to a rule that is a relative novelty. And the sticklers are steadily losing ground.

I have been allowing singular they through in copy for some time now, and not a single reader has ever registered a complaint. If singular they is acceptable to readers on the august editorial page of The Baltimore Sun, then it is plainly gaining ground as an accepted, standard usage.

I am not a stickler (though I was a particularly prissy and annoying one in my hot-blooded youth). Neither am I an enthusiast who goes dancing with every neologism that comes down the pike. I am an editor, charged with making informed judgments about what is appropriate for subject, author, publication, occasion, and audience.

Fellow editors who agree with my judgment should, rather than enforce an ill-advised rule out of fear of arousing the sticklers, do as I do and allow the singular they, as much as the constraints imposed by their hidebound masters permit. That is how usages become accepted as standard.


*I refer you to a PDF of an article on the subject by John Lawler.

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