Pronouns: “They” is too much with us

I am almost ready to come around on the view that “they,” “them” and “their” are acceptable after a singular pronoun antecedent (When the bell rings, everyone picks up their books to go home.) Almost.

I don’t freak out when I read such constructions. (In truth, I probably never freaked out. I am a fairly even-keeled person — except when I see scary whales or  hear Chris Matthews yammering.) I still change such constructions in editing. Where I work, the publication style guide explicitly calls for doing so.  We use “he or she” when such a construction is called for or we edit to make the antecedent plural if we find that better. Many editors and writers object to “he or she” as awkward and wordy, and I understand their thinking. Even though I came of age in the feminist era, I still think it’s OK to use “he” in such constructions, but I have learned to suppress my inclination.

However, writers and editors should be thoughtful about the use of “they.” Perhaps it is fine to consider “they,” “them” or “their” as singular with a compound pronoun (everyone, anybody) or an indefinite singular pronoun (each, every). But if you can edit such a construction without making it awkward, why not do that?

For example:
Anyone who is going on the field trip must have their parent or guardian sign a permission slip. This could easily be edited to: Anyone who is going on the field trip must have a parent or a guardian sign a permission slip. Every student knew they must have a signed permission slip could be edited as All students knew they must have signed permission slips.

The “they” as singular trend appears to be infecting other instances that can’t be justified.

Three sentences I read this weekend in a community newspaper that is delivered to my house represent opportunities for a copy editor to help writers who unnecessarily used “they” with a singular antecedent. These sentences left the reader with fuzzy references. All of them could be easily edited.

One from a report of a town council meeting:
 If Clayton chooses to establish rules to govern food carts, they don’t have to look far for ideas. I would have merely changed “they don’t” to “it doesn’t,” but the subject of the main clause could have been “town council members” or “town officials.”

This is from a report about the town library’s need for more up-to-date reference books:
 Town Manager Steve Biggs said the library requested an extra $5,000 for the 2012-2013 fiscal year to purchase nonfiction books, rather than cut into their overall book budget. In this case, “their” could become “its,” but I probably would have skipped the pronoun and changed the reference to “rather than cut into the overall book budget.”

And last is a sentence from a report about the connection between a local school and a foreign school:
Eric Gritta, a representative from Friend’s World Central Primary School Wakiso, said this is the first time they have joined forces with an American school. Clearly, the antecedent “school” should be referred to as “it.” But the copy editor could also have changed “they” to “the school’s students and teachers.” (By the way, Friend’s is correct. I looked that up.)

I will leave the question of the singular “they” to linguists and other usage experts, but as a copy editor, I am still charged with clearing up pronoun-antecedent problems as I see them and with adhering to style guides and accepted usage.

For more on singular “they” see:

“Reviving Singular ‘They,’ Contemporary Usage of Gender-Neutral Pronouns,” a presentation by Sandra Schaefer, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, at the 2012 ACES Conference.

“Singular They” entry at Wikipedia.

“All-Purpose Pronoun,” Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, New York Times.

“Dogma vs. Evidence: Singular They” by Geoffrey Pullum, Lingua Franca.

“Are you smarter than a fifth-grader?” by John McIntyre on his Baltimore Sun blog, “You Don’t Say.”

Please add other links or comments below.

2 Responses to “Pronouns: “They” is too much with us”

  1. Erin Brenner

    Although I’m not against singular “they,” in the examples you cite, it wouldn’t be appropriate.

    In all of the sentences, the problem isn’t that the sex of the person being referred to is unknown, as with “Anyone who is going on the field trip must have their parent or guardian sign a permission slip.” Instead, “they” was referring to a group (a town, a library, and a school). While British English would use “they” to stand for a group, American English does not, even with the acceptance of singular “they.”

    Given that the examples come from a community newspaper, it’s a fair guess that if the paper even has copyeditors, they’re overworked and didn’t notice the problem. It’s just another argument for keeping copy desks well staffed!