Knuckling under

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Linguists sometimes have run-ins with copy editors over points of usage: the linguists use variants that they know to be standard, but the editors edit them out in obedience to some fancied "rule of grammar". Frustration ensues.

On to John McWhorter (in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (2008)) on "singular they", a topic we've returned to many times on Language Log. The short version is that in certain (not all) contexts, singular they is entirely standard and has been so for a very long time. Yet many people believe, passionately, that it is always wrong, because it offends "logic".

McWhorter works up to this topic by way of two celebrated non-rules, proscribing sentence-final prepositions and proscribing split infinitives. And then (p. 66):

… the notion that this usage is "wrong" holds on so hard that even linguists have to submit to their publishers' copy editors' insistence on expunging it, which answers the question we often get as to why we do not use constructions like this in our own writing if we are so okay with them. My own books are full of resorts to he, which I find sexist, occasional dutiful shes, which strike me as injecting a stray note of PC irrelevance into what I am discussing, or he or she, which I find clumsy and clinical–for the simple reason that I was required to knuckle under. At best I can wangle an exception and get in a singular they or their once or twice a book. (I must note that the copy editor for this book, upon reading this section, actually allowed me to use singular they throughout the book. Here's to them in awed gratitude!)

That last them is a little joke, of course, but in fact it's a case where singular they is somewhat awkward (since John presumably knows the sex of the editor).

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