Attendance was down slightly at Memorial Episcopal this morning, but I do not attribute that to the possibility that part of the congregation has been lifted into the clouds in Harold Camping’s latest foretold Rapture. So, while we’re still waiting for the Parousia, let’s get back to grammar.
Arrant Pedantry, which we can congratulate for having just placed third in Grammar.net’s contest for Best Grammar Blog of 2011, suggested last week that we should act on what we know to be the case rather than cravenly cater to the Assertionists.
Writing about they used as a gender-neutral singular, he covered some familiar territory. The usage is centuries old and has survived despite the strictures of eighteenth-century grammarians and their descendants. English has accepted you as a singular, even though it was previously only a plural. The he-and-she construction is clumsy. All previous efforts to coin a gender-neutral singular have failed. Etc., etc.
Then his charge to those of use who count ourselves as reasonable prescriptivists:
Rather than join the ranks of grammarians who walk through all the arguments in favor of singular they but then throw their hands up in defeat and tell you to avoid it because it’s not accepted yet, I’m taking a different track and recommending its use. The problem with not using it until it becomes accepted is that it won’t become accepted until enough people—especially people with some authority in the field of usage—use it and say it’s okay to use it. If we sit around waiting for the day when it’s declared to be acceptable, we’ll be waiting a long time. But while there are still people who will decry it as an error, as I’ve said before, you can’t please everyone. ... I think it’s the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.
This makes sense. When I’m on the plant floor down at the paragraph factory, I no longer recast the everyone ... they sentences, and I have occasionally used the singular they in these operations. It’s instructive, particularly given how quickly readers are prepared to swoop down on errors (or perceived errors) and brandish them, that no one ever writes anymore to complain about a singular they.
The hour has arrived—not of the Rapture, but of acceptance of singular they. Go with it.*
*Yes, I realize that some fussbudget on your dissertation committee is going to demand that you kowtow to what he thinks is a Rule. But I am talking about what you should do in writing that is meant to be read.