It's a sad day for grammarians everywhere. The Washington Post will allow "they" as a singular pronoun when we don't know the person's gender. A memo from Bill Walsh, the paper's style chief explains the decision:
It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.
When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as "the singular they" is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.
I find Walsh's second example puzzling: why can't we write, "Everyone has an opinion..."? On the other hand, if we're talking just about the case for "everyone," I wouldn't rebel over it. I also understand using the singular they for transgender people including those who choose not to conform to a binary gender.
Of course, this is only an issue because we don't have an adequate gender-neutral pronoun. Unfortunately, none of several proposed options have stuck. The APA Style Guide provides a more reasoned approach to the dilemma.
Here's my favorite tweet on the subject:
- What do you think of The Washington Post's announcement? Is this a big deal or not?
- How do you handle this issue in your own writing?