The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen. In 2015, singular theywas embraced by the Washington Post style guide. Bill Walsh, copy editor for the Post, described it as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as “non-binary” in gender terms.
I ran across an interesting illustration of the tension implicit in the word this morning. I saw a series of tweets from Boston news outlets about a shooting in which the shooter took ‘their’ own life. I wondered whether this was grammatical laziness or an actual lack of knowledge of the gender of the shooter (and kudos to them for not assuming a male, though I did).
Fox 25’s first tweet I think handles it most elegantly with the simple, if spare, ‘took own life’. Channel 7 uses ‘their’ and Fox 25 follows suit a few minutes later.
I looked into the story and it turns out that in fact the gender was not known. Cambridge police uses ‘their’, while the Fox 25 website in the headline uses ‘own’ and in the text uses ‘his or her’, itself I would say a confirmation of unknown gender and the use of ‘their’ to indicate this unknown gender rather than grammatical laziness.
An interesting collection of examples of the way grammar can be interpreted both (potentially) incorrectly and, in the end, it seems, correctly.