When the San Francisco Examiner opted to accept “they” and “their” as singular pronouns, Editor Michael Howerton explained the decision in terms of respect:
San Francisco Examiner reporters are now adding another question to the basic details we ask of people we talk with: their preferred pronoun. Whether someone wishes to be known as “he,” “she” or “they,” it will be up to us to ask them, not for the reporter to assume.
This is a small change in our daily routine as reporters, but the significance is immense. It will allow our coverage to better reflect the breadth of gender expression and gender identity and present that diversity with a deserved dignity.
The Washington Post’s copy editor Bill Walsh made a similar announcement in 2015: “What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people. … [S]imply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer.”
That was also the official reason for the American Dialect Society’s choosing “they” as the 2015 Word of the Year: “for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”
But I don’t think awareness is the only reason for the shift. Consider the case of Curt Schilling, who ironically (and probably unwittingly) used inclusive language in the transphobic Facebook comment that got him fired from ESPN: “A man is a man no matter what they call themselves. I don’t care what they are, who they sleep with, men’s room was designed for the penis, women’s not so much.”
Common use of singular they predates Caitlyn Jenner and the show Transparent by many years. Widespread acceptance of this change is probably one part growing awareness of gender identity issues (a good thing), and two parts disregard for agreement in sentences (very, very bad).
Agreement refers to choosing the pronoun or verb form that corresponds to the number of people or objects involved in the sentence. Jorge is doing his homework. Gustav and Persephone are studying for their exams. Most of the time we get this right without even thinking about it. But the longer the sentence gets, the easier it is to lose track of which refers to what. That’s sort of understandable when you’re speaking, but not in writing.
Another complication: In British English, it’s common to use the plural verb form with collective nouns, words that refer to two or more (“the team are practicing,” “my family are visiting,” etc.), and it may be creeping into American English. It’s long been the norm in music writing (“Metallica are on tour”), and even American sportscasters can be heard adopting it in World Cup coverage (“England are through to the next round, France are not”). In her speech at the Democratic convention, Hillary Clinton said, “My family were builders of a different kind.” Typically in American English “was” would follow “family,” but “my family was builders” sounds even more awkward.
What’s not acceptable is randomly switching styles, as in this line from an article at ZDNet: “Google’s Macintosh Operations team have been working on a security application destined for Apple’s OS X ecosystem and has managed to attract the attention of the open-source community in the process.” And this sentence from io9: “Earlier this month, SpaceX said they were ready to move into mass production with its Falcon 9 rocket.” In both examples, the subject of the sentence (team in the first sentence, SpaceX in the second) is treated as plural and then singular. There is no reason for this, it’s just sloppy writing.
And then there are abominations like this headline: “These Amazing Illustrations For Parents Is Definitely What Parents Should Read Today.” Oh, is they?
In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2014, Jill Soloway, creator of Transparent, talked about adjusting to singular they after her own father transitioned: “It sounds plural to people immediately, but I think as this country begins to get used to the sound of ‘they’ and ‘them’ — it took me awhile, it took me a year to have ‘they’ or ‘them’ roll of the tongue, but it’s just the way to speak about somebody where you don’t want to gender them.”
And if Curt Schilling can manage that, anyone can. But most agreement problems that I read and hear have nothing to do with “gendering” someone, and most are easily avoided. Like in this headline from NPR: “How To Get Dads To A Parenting Class? Ask Them To Read To Their Kid.” Add an s to kid, and boom, agreement.
In other cases, the fix might take a little more effort, but is still easy. Just reconsider the subject of the sentence. For example: “Everyone is invited to bring their child to work tomorrow” can be rewritten: “You’re all invited to bring your children to work tomorrow.”
Or this quote from Harper Lee: “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself. It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demon, but of his divine discontent.” Lee, who of course was a woman, wrote at a time when masculine pronouns (he, him, his) were used in cases where we now commonly use they, them or their. But that trades one set of problems for another. However, if we change a couple of nouns to their plural forms, everything falls into place: “Writers worth their salt write to please themselves … An exorcism of not necessarily their demons, but of their divine discontent.”