This week's NYT On Language column features Patricia T. O'Conner and Stuart Kellerman defending singular they ("All Purpose Pronoun", 7/26/2009). They lead, topically, with the value of shedding five characters from "he or she" to help stay under the limit of 140 characters per tweet. And they blame the retreat from singular they to sex-neutral he on Anne Fisher:
If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.
Minus the topical lede, much of this material is to be found in their excellent recent book, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, which is organized as a collection of bite-sized essays with clever heads. Specifically, this week's column draws on "To He or Not to He" (pp. 137-138), and "Gender Bending" (pp. 141-145).
O'Connor and Kellerman urge the anti-they forces ("atheyists"?) to give up their misguided and hopeless fight:
Meanwhile, many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars, never mind the grammarians. In fact, so many people now use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it. R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has written that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English: “The process now seems irreversible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already finds the singular they acceptable “even in literary and formal contexts,” but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) isn’t there yet.
It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural. But umbrage the grammarians took, and like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language. Yes, even those who use only 140 characters a pop.
Still, it would be nice if the Gray Lady's management decided to give this couple Safire's gig when he retires, assuming that Dave Barry continues to hold out. There's a decade's worth of columns in their book, and plenty of evidence that they could spin out more as targets of opportunity arise.