Over the past several decades, there has been much discussion and debate among English teachers and linguists over singular, third person pronouns. Although “he,” “she,” and “you” are easy to use, confusion arises when a pronoun could refer to either a man or woman. Consider the following sentences:
A professor is held responsible for the academic performance of __?__ students.
A police officer should always keep __?__ safety in mind.
Years ago, writers just used “he.” At that time, professional jobs were held by men with only a few exceptions. Following the feminist movement, it became common for women to go into professional fields. This proved to be great for society but confusing for writers. Solutions to this problem include alternating between male and female pronouns or using the popular “he or she.” Unfortunately, using this phrase can cause a piece of writing to sound clunky.
When speaking, almost no one uses “he or she.” Instead, most people use “they” as a singular pronoun, such as in the following sentence: “If a person has a car accident while talking on the phone, it’s their own fault.” Since writing is more formal than speaking, though, “they” has generally only been considered acceptable as a plural pronoun.
Recently, though, singular “they” has become more and more accepted in academic writing. Earlier this year, it became even more acceptable as it was named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. Although this doesn’t guarantee complete acceptance by all grammarians and professors, it does indicate that singular “they” is on its way toward becoming academically correct in spite of objections from staunch prescriptive grammarians. This would provide a great way for writers to acknowledge more than one gender without making their prose sound awkward.
Keep in mind that some of the competition for Word of the Year included “on fleek” and “Netflix and chill,” so this may not propel “they” into complete academic acceptance just yet, but it is a step closer. Perhaps one day soon, singular “they” will be listed in a new edition of Webster’s dictionary.
For more information, see the following article from the Washington Post: Washington Post: Word of the Year