Is the singular ‘they’ OK?

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If the antecedent is singular, it’s grammatically incorrect to use ‘they,’ but ‘he or she’ is clunky. Where do you stand?

By Laura Hale Brockway | Posted: June 2, 2015

How many times have you corrected a sentence like this:

Everyone should return to their seats.

To correct it, you can either do this: “Everyone should return to his or her seat,” or this: “Passengers should return to their seats.”

You could also write, “Audience members should return to their seats,” or “Everyone return to your seat.”

What if we didn’t have to fix it, though? What if we could just leave the “their” in the sentence?

That option may soon be a reality. Over the last several weeks, several prominent language blogs have featured discussions on the singular “they” among them Lingua Franca, Poynter Institute and The Baltimore Sun.) The authors ask the question: Can “they” refer to an individual person, specifically a person of unspecified or unknown gender?

We were all taught—by everyone from our third-grade teachers to our journalism professors—that the singular “they” is bad grammar. Style guides say its use is unacceptable in formal writing.

Prominent language blogger Ann Curzan argues that the singular “they” has been used for centuries. Insisting that the singular “they” is bad grammar “unproductively dismisses the actual grammar of many, many English speakers,” she writes. “It’s not a question of whether this pronoun can be singular; it’s more accurately a question of whether we should and will let ‘they’ be used in its singular form in formal, edited prose without comment.”

Essentially, the only roadblock to the acceptance and usage of the singular “they” is that editors change it.

What do you think Ragan readers? Should writers begin using the singular “they” in professional writing, or is it still an absolute no-no?

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Laura Hale Brockway is medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. Read more of her work at impertinentremarks.com.

 

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