Grammar purists bristle when they hear the plural they used to refer to one person, but the usage is likely to stick, because it’s a convenient answer to a vexing writing problem.
When you don’t know if someone is male or female, you need to find a gender-neutral alternative, which is why people commonly write, “Every manager must submit their evaluation today.” As the use of the gender-neutral they has become increasingly common, resistance to it has declined, and the American Dialect Society even named it the word of the year for 2015. Consider the issue settled, after more than two centuries of discussion.
The use of they as a gender-neutral reference has been criticized since the 1790s, and people have tried on several occasions to find dual-purpose pronouns. Dennis Barron, in his Web of Language blog, writes that in 1912, Chicago School Superintendent Ella Flagg opened a speech by saying that “a principal should so conduct his’er school that all pupils are engaged in something that is profitable to him’er.” These were the earliest versions of his or her and him or her.
Language historian Richard Lederer says that society is uncomfortable with the male chauvinist, “Each student should submit his registration online,” and people don’t like to repeatedly use his or her, because it’s awkward. “They is historically tested as the most graceful substitute,” he says.
The authoritative Fowler’s Modern English Usage says that distinguished writers have used they, their, and them to refer to singular nouns for so long that “traditional grammarians aside, such constructions are hardly noticed anymore or are not felt to lie in a prohibited zone.”
So if you are a corporate communications or public relations professional, and you write, “Did anyone leave their laptop in the conference room?” or “Each employee has their own office,” don’t wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. It’s time to move on.
Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available at here at Amazon.com.