I admit it: I am picky about grammar. I use the word “whom” when an object pronoun is called for, even in spoken English. I refuse to pass on graphic memes with bad grammar. My mild-mannered Facebook persona occasionally gives way to someone called the Guerrilla Grammarian who issues a public service announcement about some urgent issue such as the correct English spelling of Gandhi. “Irregardless” sets my teeth on edge and I have a carefully-honed argument about why it’s acceptable to begin a sentence with “Hopefully . . . ” I know why one says “15 items or fewer” and “I’ve gotten less than five hours of sleep every night this week,” and I stick to it. From this position of linguistic purity, I feel I have the authority to make the following declaration: “they” is a perfectly appropriate gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. It is, in fact, the ideal word to use when we wish to speak of a person, as well as persons, unknown or indeterminate.
You know the problem I’m talking about, right? Sometimes you can’t say, “He fell right off his broomstick with a thud” because you don’t know whether the person falling was Harry or Hermione, in which case you might say, “In the dark of the midnight Quidditch pitch, Ron heard someone fall off their broomstick.” I see nothing wrong with that. I’d like to call it the Rowling rule, because she does it all the time, to the irritation of other grammar-obsessed nitpickers.
What are some alternatives to “they” in this example?
Use “his/her”: “Ron heard someone fall off his/her broomstick.” Problem: do you have to ask? Slashes are the stuff of bureaucratic documents, not fiction. Except, of course, fanfiction. Also, they’re binary and there are more than two sexes and more than two genders.
Use “his or her”: “Ron heard someone fall off his or her broomstick.” Problem: barely less awkward than “his/her.”
Use a new pronoun: “Ron heard someone fall off zir broomstick.” Or do I mean “hir broomstick”? Or “eir broomstick”? Problem: I appreciate the creativity, but there’s a reason that these haven’t caught on and it isn’t (only) transphobia. I don’t even know how to pronounce that last one, and if you can’t pronounce a word you won’t use it.
Use “his”: “Ron heard someone fall off his broomstick.” Problem: We live in the 21st century, in which women and girls are widely acknowledged to be more than half the population. Please.
Use “her”: “Ron heard someone fall off her broomstick.” Problem: Even in the 21st century, this will make most of your readers think you know it’s a female broomstick rider. Sorry.
Alternate between them: “Ron heard someone fall off her broomstick.” A paragraph later: “Ron heard someone else fall off his broomstick.” Problem: This works very well in a nonfiction text with lots of examples, such as a book on parenting. “Your two-year-old may enjoy playing with containers, so give him a stack of plastic or metal bowls.” Next paragraph: “Two-year-olds have unpredictable mood swings, so she may be very independent one minute, clingy the next.” Great solution in this kind of text, but not in most.
Rewrite: “Ron heard someone fall off a broomstick.” Problem: weak; loses the visual impact of A person falling off THE broomstick THE person had been riding.
In contrast, points in favor of “they” are numerous. It seems to be the natural choice; it’s what we tend to say in spoken language in such situations (“Who’s at the door?” “I don’t know–I can’t see them through the peephole”). It is less clunky and binary than “his/her” or “s/he.” The main argument against it–that it is ungrammatical–is very, very weak. “It’s a plural pronoun!” cry overachieving amateur, and uninformed professional, grammarians. Yes, it is. And I know another plural pronoun: “you.” Is it incorrect to use “you” as a singular because “you” is plural? Of course not.
Singular: You’re wearing my shoes!
Plural: You won’t all fit on this elevator!
We have a strong precedent for using one pronoun for both singular and plural. We have a linguistic problem to which this fact is a solution. So let’s use it. I already use “they” (singular) in written as well as spoken English. I think one neologism is warranted, and again, seems to slide off the English-speaking tongue: a singular version of the reflexive pronoun. “You” has “yourself” (singular) and “yourselves” (plural); when we use “they” as a singular pronoun, its reflexive counterpart would be “themself.”
There is a second linguistic problem that “they” can solve: a polite way to refer to agender, transgender, and genderqueer people–anyone for whom “he” and “she” are not sufficient choices. As Karl Fleischman, the father of Sasha Fleischman, an agender teen who was badly burned last week when someone set their skirt on fire, writes, his child prefers “they” as a pronoun. He adds, “English doesn’t have commonly used gender-neutral third-person singular pronouns yet.” However, I would say that it does. It has “they.”
Whether agender and transgender folk will adopt “they” for themselves is up to them. It’s not up to me, and I will use whatever pronoun a person prefers for themself, but I humbly suggest that it has a huge advantage over “ze,” “hir,” or any of the other neologisms that have been tried. Neologisms do take hold sometimes, but when we already have a word that has worn a path in our linguistic landscape–the way “they” has done for many of us–it’s likely to be the best place to build the road.