I participated in an ACES Twitter chat, Your Grammar Question Answered, Tuesday during which we chatted about the singular “they.” One of my co-chatters, @KUBremner, aka Lisa McLendon, noted that the singular “they” can be handy as an epicene — a word that has only one form for both masculine and feminine. So we could use the epicene “they/them/their” in a sentence such as this: Everyone picked up their pencils and began the test. “Their” refers to the indefinite pronoun “everyone.” Because we don’t know everyone’s sex, we use “their,” which sounds less formal than “his or her” and doesn’t carry the stigma of the prefeminist “he.”
Or you could rewrite the sentence as several chatters suggested.
The singular “they” is not, however, a substitute for “it” when referring to an entity — at least not in written American English. This is an example of an unnecessary use of “they/them/their”: CBS is covering their own backside in a memo banning
beasts breasts and buttocks at the Grammys. “Its” works best to refer to a company. (I know some writers and editors will disagree with what I have written. Please feel free to leave a comment if you do.)
The publications I work for do not accept the epicene use of “they.” We use “he or she” and “his or her.”
Even though I understand and accept (to a degree) the epicene “they,” I am perfectly content with not using it. I am toeing the line on my publications’ style, and I am warding off attacks from the ardent prescriptivists.
If you would like to see what else we chatted about in our #ACESchat, here is a Storify put up by moderator Gerri Berendzen.