A pesky personal pronoun

This lead on newsobserver.com confused me this morning:

A person was killed just before 11:30 p.m. Wednesday when they were hit by a train in Four Oaks, Johnston County dispatch officials said late Wednesday.

Who is “they”? Was more than one person on the tracks?

As I read the rest of this short report, I realized that the writer had used “they” to refer to a single person because the sex of the victim was not known. So what is the alternative? Some would recommend writing “he or she,” but others would find that silly and unwieldy. The writer could have repeated “person,” and, indeed, the rest of the brief uses a noun (“victim” or “person”) to avoid having to choose a gender- or number-specific pronoun. An editor might have recast the lead entirely (provided the editor had time!) to:

A person was struck by a train and killed just before 11:30 p.m. Wednesday in Four Oaks, Johnston County dispatch officials said late Wednesday.

In instances such as this one, I wish English had a singular pronoun that was not gender-specific — like “it,” but for human beings.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.