[lg policy] Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular ‘They’

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Thu Dec 17 15:42:12 UTC 2015

 Witnessing a Rule Change: Singular ‘They’

[image: They mug]
<http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/files/2015/12/They-mug.jpg>I 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
<http://theslot.blogspot.com/2015/12/acknowledging-inevitable.html> 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.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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