👉 An excerpt from "A brief history of singular they", by Dennis Baron
Singular ‘they’ has become the pronoun of choice to replace ‘he and she’ in cases where the gender of the antecedent – the word the pronoun refers to – is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like ‘Everyone loves his mother’.
Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular 'they' was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.
In the eighteenth century, grammarians began warning that singular 'they' was an error because a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. They clearly forgot that singular 'you' was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well. You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular 'you' replaced 'thou', 'thee', and 'thy', except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. […]
Singular 'you' has become normal and unremarkable. […] And singular 'they' is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the form. The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular 'they' ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.
Not everyone is down with singular 'they'. The well-respected Chicago Manual of Style still rejects singular 'they' for formal writing, and just the other day a teacher told me that he still corrects students who use ‘everyone … their’ in their papers, though he probably uses singular 'they' when his students aren’t looking. […]
👉 Dennis Baron – Professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read Dennis’s blog, The Web of Language, and follow him on Twitter as @DrGrammar.