Their to stay
If you’re not on Twitter, you missed this exchange among the language-usage set:
1. @sinandsyntax, posting: As bad as Palin: "At the end of the day a member of Congress makes their own decision." Debbie Wasserman Schultz: 1 cliche, 1 errant pronoun
2. @verbolixity. rseponding: @sinandsyntax Using "they," "them," "their(s)" as gender-neutral alternatives to "he"/"she," "him"/"her," "his"/"her(s)" is a sin? @TheSlot
3. @TheSlot, responding in turn: @verbolixity @sinandsyntax I wish I had the power to decree the plural pronouns acceptable as singular to avoid the gender problem.
4. @sinandsyntax: responding to both: @TheSlot @verbolixity But why muddy the language? Is it so hard to be precise? Obama would be happy though. He loves "somebody" ... they.
At least @sinandsyntax is bipartisan in scorn.
I’d like to see less scorn, though, toward the singular they. For one thing, I dispute that it is muddy or imprecise. Is there anyone who has encountered the singular their in Shakespeare or Austen, or heard a teacher say, “Everybody should bring their textbook to class tomorrow,” who has failed to understand the meaning?
I begin to suspect that it is mainly my fellow copy editors, and ever fewer of them, who still object to these constructions, or even notice them.
It comes down to this: We want a non-sexist (epicene), third-person, singular-or-plural pronoun. All efforts to invent such a pronoun have been futile.* We already have a gender-neutral pronoun that has fulfilled this function since the time of Caxton and Chaucer: they/their. So the sensible thing to do is to abandon the stricture against it from your fifth-grade English class.
*Dennis Baron’s catalogue of the failures.