Here is Sandy Brindley, of Rape Crisis Scotland, quoted (in the Metro newspaper, 29 June 2010), talking about an advertisement her organization has published:
The advert has been designed to shake out ingrained prejudices many Scots have towards women who have been raped. Even though people believe they wouldn't judge a rape victim by what they wear, how drunk they were, or if they had been flirting, they often do.
Now, you're a Language Log reader; you've probably read about singular they and the prescriptivist prejudice against it. What do we want to say about the use of pronouns in the second sentence in this quotation?
Here's what I'm hoping those of you with your hands up were going to say.
1. Singular they is very natural for most speakers, and it is increasingly common, especially among younger people.
2. The prescriptivists who warn you off it, telling you to avoid Everyone should bring their own drinks and say Everyone should bring his own drinks instead, are dopey old coots and you shouldn't listen to them.
3. That doesn't mean Sandy Brindley made a good decision about using it above. She has two noun phrases to keep apart semantically here, both with anaphoric pronouns depending on them: people and a rape victim. She is focusing here on rape of women, as the first sentence in the quotation shows. Her use of singular they for the references back to a rape victim ("judge a rape victim by what they wear, how drunk they were", etc.), though grammatical, is extremely and unnecessarily confusing. The feminine pronoun would have been a vastly better choice:
Even though people believe they wouldn't judge a rape victim by what she wears, how drunk she was, or if she had been flirting, they often do.
4. If the use of singular they was a careless on-the-fly thing on her part, Sandy should do more preparation for speaking in public. If it was a deliberate and carefully made decision to avoid specifying the sex of rape victims, out of some sort of must-be-even-handed avoidance of mentioning anybody's gender, then it was a really dumb decision, stylistically inept, and totally undercut anyway by the direct mention of women in the previous sentence.
5. So sometimes there are very bad decisions to use singular they: sometimes Strunk and White are right. But the bad cases, as here, don't imply that the right policy should be never to use singular they, any more than train wrecks imply that the right policy is never to use trains.
6. My complaint about Strunk and White's The Elements of Style has never been that everything they say is always wrong (though I do argue that most of their claims about grammar per se are misguided). What I argue against is, first, the fetishizing of vapid (though undeniably correct) style advice that is completely unhelpful because of its vagueness ("Be clear", etc.), and second, over-general discouragement of constructions (adjectival modification, the passive, singular they, etc.) that are sometimes a good stylistic choice and sometimes not. (The latter is the old problem of educators who think if they do it too much they should be told not to do it at all. It's mindless policy and leads to obnoxious stylistic bullying.)
7. The way to avoid needless bad choices in the grammatical structure of your writing is not to learn a short list of things you must always avoid; it's to be sensitive to what's a good idea and what's a bad idea, on a basis of knowing the difference. There's a reason why Sandy should have avoided singular they in what she wrote: she had some cases of plural they fighting with the singular ones in the same sentence. Don't set up two competing sets of identical pronouns fighting with each other in the same sentence if you can avoid it. That's a good recommendation, not a silly one. Whereas "Don't ever use singular they" is a silly one.
OK, homework for this week is to read all the posts on singular they on Language Log, including the many on Language Log Classic (see the search box and custom search link on our front page). Budget some time for this; the topic has exercised us at least fifty or sixty times. Class dismissed.