'They' as a singular
Jim Richardson wrote to Dan Rodricks’ Midday program on National Grammr Day with a familiar quandary:
Here’s my dilemma. I’m always looking for another way to say “his or her” so that I don’t sound sexist: as in, “The patient should visit his or her physician.” While correct, it certainly sounds stilted. Sometimes I say “The patient should visit their physician,” but I’ve gotten varying opinions on the correctness of this form. What do your experts say?
That baying sound you hear in the distance is the outraged howling from copy desks across the country. These are people who will tell you that you have three choices: (1) Use his in all instances, and polticial correctitude be damned. (2) Use his and her, no matter how awkward the resulting construction. (3) Convert everything to plurals, so that their can be used acceptably.
You can do any and all of these things, but you should have the option of they/their with a singular antecedent. This has been a common feature of English usage for centuries, and it has become so commonplace in British usage that no one there makes a fuss any longer. Now, I have at least one colleague who sputters, “I don’t care if Jane Austen used it; I’m not going to.” So if you choose to use the singular they, you must be bold, brave and resolute.
Should you require additional support — not that you’d dream of questioning my authority — Bryan Garner, prescriptivist, has called this usage “the most likely solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language,” and the descriptivists at Language Log hold the view that “in certain (not all) contexts, singular they is entirely standard and has been so for a very long time. Yet many people believe, passionately, that it is always wrong, because it offends ‘logic.’ ”
The only question is how long it will take people of my generation to give in or die before the usage becomes widely acceptable in American English. You can be one of the pioneers.