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the singular "they"

There are many purists who insist that the use of "they" with a singular referent is wrong. For some reason, their favorite illustration of this supposed misuse runs something along the lines of:

"Each student must bring a permission slip from their parents." 

This choice of example apparently evokes an image of the classroom where Miss Thistlebottom laid down the rules by which we were supposed to live.

For many years, I was among those purists (although I never used that particular example). I am no longer. Why the conversion? Two reasons--first, I started listening to what well-spoken people (myself included) actually said and, second, I realized that there was an exactly parallel situation with "you" and no purist seems to get worked up about that one.

We use "you" with its plural verb forms for both plural and singular referents (the lover whispers "You are my heart's desire" into the ear of only one person at a time). We use "they" the same, and by "we" here I mean most of us, including a great many of the people who will argue that it is wrong (sometimes during those arguments).

Why are we so ornery? Because it is clearly valid English usage, filling a true need, and has been for centuries. I could give you a list of well-known authors who have used it, but if you can't take my word for it, you'll have to do your own research.

Some of the people who argue against the singular "they" insist that the popularity of this usage is new (and therefore crass and vulgar), motivated by the desire to be politically correct in not using the generic "he"; history suggests, however, that the usage that is new, crass, and vulgar is the generic "he."

 

 

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