Jane Austen wrote, "To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love." But had she submitted that line to a modern English teacher, she would have gotten docked for grammar. Instead of "when they fall in love," it should be "when he falls in love," or perhaps the clunkier "when he or she falls in love," right? That has long been the prevailing view, but after a slow and steady creep, that view seems to be disappearing. In fact, this year might be the tipping point for acceptance of the "singular they." Quartz, for example, has dubbed singular they its Word of the Year. And earlier this month, the Washington Post changed its style guide to accept it, though the guide still encourages reporters to first try to write around it by recasting the sentence as plural, notes Poynter. So, "All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework," per the guide.
But when that kind of rewrite is "impossible or hopelessly awkward," writers should employ the singular they. One big factor behind the shift—not just at the Post but in newspapers, online posts, and English classrooms across the country—is the increasing acceptance in society of those who identify as neither male nor female. The singular they solves the problem. (On a related note, the New York Times now permits "Mx." as a gender-neutral honorific in place of Mr. or Ms., notes Quartz.) Grammatical purists may protest, but they are simply wrong, writes English teacher Anne Curzan at the Chronicle for Higher Education. "There is nothing grammatically wrong with singular they other than the fact that people say there is something wrong with it," she writes, noting the similarity to the outdated rule, still enforced in places, about not splitting infinitives. Adds Anna Walsh at Baltimore's City Paper, "Using language that's more accurately inclusive is something that every grammarian should be able to get behind, regardless of what pronouns they personally use." (The Internet seems to have invented a preposition.)