Mary Norris, "Comma Queen: The Singular 'Their'", The New Yorker 3/4/2016:
Last year, at the convention of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), in Pittsburgh, everyone was talking about “the singular ‘their.’ ” It is the people’s choice for the gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun that the English language sadly lacks.
Many ACES stalwarts—copy editors, journalists, grammarians, lexicographers, and linguists—stand ready to embrace the singular “their.” But not us. We avoid it whenever we can.
Singular they wasn't just a theme at last year's copy editors' meeting — it was the American Dialect Society's 2015 Word of the Year, and as John McIntyre put it in the Baltimore Sun back in April of 2015, "discussion of singular they is busting out all over". He linked to a Lingua Franca piece by Anne Curzan, who noted that
I am struck by the wording of critics who ponder whether the pronoun they “can be” singular. Given the evidence of widespread use of singular they for centuries, the question makes no sense.
John described the reaction that Mary Norris exemplifies:
The people who have been schooled to loathe singular they despise it with a visceral reaction. “NO!” they scream in all caps. “NEVER!” they proclaim, vowing to die in the last ditch for this one.
Sit tibi terra levis.
"May the earth rest lightly upon you".
Ms. Norris would never be so crass as to write in all caps, and her style is more bureaucratic than militaristic, but she certainly forces writers to eliminate singular they:
My first example is a sentence from a short story by George Saunders: "Everyone would do exactly what they liked."
I hated to do it, but I had to suggest that it should be "Everyone would do exactly what he or she liked," or "All should do what they liked."
And I was so pleased when it came back reading "Everyone would do exactly what he liked." Once in a while, the conservative use of the masculine to cover both the feminine and the masculine blends in and doesn't do any harm. OK? Ladies?
An example from a piece by Kathryn Schulz read "But while everyone always thinks that they are on the side of the angels." Now I read this in page proof a few times before I realized that it was a number problem. The copy editor in me finally sat up and said, "Can we do something about this?"
And we finally came up with "But while people nearly always think that they are on the side of the angels," and the sentence goes on. So "people" is plural, and "they" is the pronoun linking back to "people" — both of them are plural, so that sentence is well balanced.
As with many of The New Yorker's crochets, avoidance of singular they is a rationalist innovation masquerading as linguistic conservatism. We can imagine Ms. Norris's discussions with writers over the centuries —
Chaucer, "The Pardoner's Prologue":
And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up.
Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, act IV scene 3:
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.
Philippians 2:3 (King James Version):
Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues.
Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded:
I beg you will look over my poor matters, and let every one have what belongs to them; for, said I, you know I am resolved to take with me only what I can properly call my own.
Jonathan Edwards, Heaven:
That is, there will be some especially distinguished for one grace, others for another ; some of one manner of the exercise of grace, others of another; some fitted for this work, others for that: everyone will have their distinguishing gift, one after this manner, and another after that,, the perfection of the saints in glory, nothing hindering.
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography:
I should have mentioned before, that, in the autumn of the preceding year, I had form'd most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which was called the Junto […] But my giving this account of it here is to show something of the interest I had, everyone of these exerting themselves in recommending business to us.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe:
Hence it is, that a miser, though he pays every body their own, cannot be an honest man, when he does not discharge the good offices that are incumbent on a friendly, kind, and generous person.
Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation:
Every fool can do as they're bid.
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility:
Each of them was busy in arranging their particular concerns, and endeavouring, by placing around them books and other possessions, to form themselves a home.
Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe:
I return in my grave-clothes, a pledge restored from the very sepulchre, and every one I speak to vanishes as soon as they hear my voice!
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby:
Let us give everybody their due.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights:
I thought, though everybody hated and despised each other, they could not avoid loving me.
Charlotte Brontë, Henry Hastings:
I think I should have spoken to her, but something suggested to me, 'Every body has their own burden to bear. Let her drink the chalice fate commends to her lips.'
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women:
Everybody sniffed when they came to that part.
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now:
Everybody doesn't make themselves a part of the family. I have heard of nobody doing it except you.
Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native:
It is the instinct of everyone to look after their own.
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad:
I always ask everybody what ship they came over in.
Robert Lewis Stevenson, Treasure Island:
The admirable fellow literally slaved in my interest, and so, I may say, did everyone in Bristol, as soon as they got wind of the port we sailed for.
Winston Churchill, The Story of the Malakand Field Force:
Every one realised afterwards how obvious this was and wondered they had not thought of it before.
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland:
'If everybody minded their own business,' the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, 'the world would go round a deal faster than it does.'
Henry James, An International Episode:
He thinks everyone clever, and sometimes they are.
George Eliot, Middlemarch:
The fact is, I never loved any one well enough to put myself into a noose for them.
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone:
It's the ebb now, sir, as anybody may see for themselves.
William Butler Yeats, Ideas of Good and Evil:
Since I was a boy I have always longed to hear poems spoken to a harp […] Whenever I spoke of my desire to anybody they said I should write for music, but when I heard anything sung I did not hear the words, or if I did their natural pronunciation was altered and their natural music was altered, or it was drowned in another music which I did not understand.
John Dos Passos, Three Soldiers:
Everybody craned their necks in the direction pointed out.
Saki, "The Boar-Pig":
After all, as every one else is enjoying themselves, I don’t see why Tarquin shouldn’t have an afternoon out.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward:
Everyone wished that the weather had spared them this choking and venomous inundation of peculiar fumes.
Dorothy Sayers, Murder Must Advertise:
In the other places, everybody knew me, or at least they knew what I was there for.
Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes:
"A lump without leaven," said Madame, who judged everyone by their capacity to execute rondes de jambes.
C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
Still, she kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.
E. Nesbit, The Railway Children:
They did not recognise the sound of the boots, but everyone was certain that they had heard the voice before.
Jack London, Martin Eden:
But I assure you it was no less brutal to me when everybody I knew recommended it to me as they would recommend right conduct to an immoral creature.
e e cummings "V [gee i like to think of dead it means nearer because deeper firmer]"
POF goes the alarm off and the little striker
having the best time tickling away everybody's brain so everybody
just puts out their finger and they stuff the poor thing all full
Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse:
The sun grew hotter and everybody seemed to come very close together and to feel each other's presence, which they had almost forgotten.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby:
You can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don't see or care.
Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans:
Everybody has their own being in them, every one is a kind of men and women.
James Joyce, Ulysses:
Everybody gets their own ration of luck, they say.
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast:
Everyone had their private cafés there where they never invited anyone and would go to work, or to read or to receive their mail.
Willa Cather, My Ántonia:
Everybody liked her, didn't they?
Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind:
Everyone knew that her swoons were generally mere ladylike pretenses but they loved her enough to refrain from saying so.
George Orwell, 1984:
Everyone wanted a place where they could be alone occasionally.
Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles:
If anyone has seen either of them touching the medicine, they will have forgotten it by that time.
Anne Sexton, "Yellow":
everyone will be home playing with
their wings and the planet will
shudder with all those smiles
H.G. Wells, Ann Veronica:
Everybody, he felt, must be listening behind their papers.
D.H. Lawrence "To be superior":
The trouble is, everybody thinks they're just as superior
as we are;
Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz:
Everyone knew she had been the means of destroying the Wicked Witch and setting them free from bondage.
W.H. Auden, Letters from Iceland:
Everyone has their pet medicines, but from personal experience I would recommend chlorodyne as the best stuff to take in cases of internal disorder.
Lawrence Frelinghetti, "The Love Nut"
He wants to run up to everybody in the waiting room and kiss
them on the spot and say Why aren't we friends and lovers
He's the kind addresses everybody on buses making them laugh
Sylvia Plath, "The Bee Meeting":
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Andrei Codrescu, "In the Supermarket":
Everyone looked up from the shelves in which in which they had been engrossed reading the labels and congratulated me at the top of their voices.
Thomas Pynchon, V.:
At this signal, everyone would dive for and if they were lucky enough to reach one be given suck by a beer tap.
Margaret Atwood, Lady Oracle:
Everyone trusted me, no one was afraid of me, though they should have been.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed:
It was just another of the parties where everybody stood about with glasses in their hands smiling and talking loudly.
Andrew Vachss, Everybody Pays:
Everybody has their route in. Everybody has their route out. Everybody has their money.
Iain Banks, Look to Windward:
If the process had been just another useful technological step along the way for any ambitious society, like nanotechnology, AI or wormhole creation, then everybody would presumably do it as soon as they could.
Belle Waring "Vallejo takes the Metro"
It's been a long
night, no big deal, everybody misses their dead.
If Ms. Norris's piece were dated exactly four Fridays later, I would suspect a subtle follow-up to Geoff Pullum's "At last, the truth from The New Yorker". But I'm afraid that it's just more of what Ben Zimmer called "Screwball reasons and gloriously simple distinctions".
[h/t Cynthia McLemore]