“They” as a singular pronoun

In preparing for a class last week, I stumbled on this Wall Street Journal article about the increasing acceptance of “they” as a singular pronoun. The point of the article is that it’s probably OK to use “they” and “their” in place of “he or she” and “his or her” in sentences like this:

A lawyer must never violate their oath of admission.

Somebody left their laptop in Room F302.

If your child is thinking about law school, they should read Professor Tamanaha’s book.

I am on board with this trend for several reasons. First, I agree with the author of the article that the alternatives–“he or she” and “his or her”–are clunky and awkward. Second, I strongly believe that written English should not be different from spoken English, and nobody would use “he or she” or “his or her” in the sentences above if conversing with a friend. Third, I’m also a believer in the evolving nature of grammar. A well-written judicial opinion from the 1950s looks very different from a well-written judicial opinion from this decade. Those of us who teach writing should keep up with the times instead of clinging to rules we were taught in junior high. Finally, it’s always nice to have one less thing to correct when I’m reading a student’s paper.

I still do not accept “they” and “their” when the antecedent is not human. For example, I consider this incorrect: American Express recently revised their privacy policy. The pronoun in that sentence should be “its.” This is a big issue in legal writing when the antecedent is “court”; the correct pronouns are “it” and “its.” Having said that, I do sometimes catch myself using “they” or “their” with singular, nonhuman antecedents when speaking in class, and there may come a day when I give up on enforcing this rule.

When the antecedent is a specific person, you should of course use “he” or “she” depending on the sex of the person. This includes transgender people: Caitlyn Jenner gave her first post-transition interview to Vanity Fair.

The only exception is when the person does not identify as male or female. For example, earlier this year The New York Times Magazine published an article about a California high school student who identifies as “agender.” The article included the following parenthetical:

Telling Sasha’s story also poses a linguistic challenge, because English doesn’t offer a ready-made way to talk about people who identify as neither male nor female. Sasha prefers “they,” “it” or the invented gender-neutral pronoun “xe.” The New York Times does not use these terms to refer to individuals.

A few weeks later, the Times profiled Rocko Gieselman, a University of Vermont student who identifies as neither male nor female and prefers the pronoun “they.” The Times apparently just avoids pronouns altogether when writing about such people.

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