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Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular ‘They’

They mugI have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by the graduate students in the Joint Program in English and Education (JPEE) and celebrates my advocacy of singular they—with the explanatory footnote.

But when can we stop including the footnote?

We got one step closer two weeks ago, when Bill Walsh, chief of the night copy desk at The Washington Post, sent an email to the newsroom announcing some changes in the style guidelines. In addition to eliminating the hyphen in email and endorsing the spelling mic over mike, his email gave in to singular they as “permissible” when rewriting the sentence to make it plural is “impossible or hopelessly awkward.” Walsh also noted the usefulness of they when referring to people who identify outside the male-female binary.

Walsh’s email — and more specifically the part of his email about singular they — made headlines, including an article by Bill Walsh himself. John E. McIntyre, night content production editor at The Baltimore Sun and a long-time advocate of singular they, published a nice piece addressing some of the common objections to singular they. And Arika Okrent, blogging at Mental Floss, predicted that other news organizations will follow the Post’s lead. I would guess she is right.

This is how rules change: one style guide at a time. And often cautiously. Walsh does not wholeheartedly embrace singular they. He frames it as a permissible last resort when there is no way to get around the need for a generic singular pronoun. When nothing terrible happens — readers are not confused by singular they, if they even notice it, and no one cancels their subscription to the newspaper over it — singular they will become an ever more standard option.

It will take a while for widespread acceptance of singular they among English teachers and copy editors. After all, some of them are still strictly enforcing the rule about not splitting infinitives, and that was cautiously accepted by Oxford and others some 20 years ago. But I think it is fair to say that singular they now has its foot solidly in the door of acceptable English usage. Or, to change the metaphor, the gatekeepers of formal English usage have cracked open the gate.

As a historian of the English language, I have accepted this cautious creep toward acceptability, even though there is nothing grammatically wrong with singular they other than the fact that people say there is something wrong with it. It makes sense that the dissipation of long-established grammar and style rules takes time.

As a professor of English and a copy editor, I am one of the gatekeepers when it comes to what counts as “acceptable” in formal, edited prose. I am doing and will continue to do what I can to speed things along: I voted “completely acceptable” for all the sentences with singular they on the 2015 usage survey for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; I will continue to use singular they in my own academic writing; I talk with students about the debate in class; and obviously I can’t seem to help but blog about singular they here. The next step is to assume that my readers will see singular they as standard enough (e.g., in the line above about no one canceling their subscription) that it merits no special comment.

I have decided to keep the mug and drop the footnote.

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