Suppose you were reading and came to the following line:
“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”
Would you …
(a) continue reading, because that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence, or
(b) throw a tantrum and insist that the author is an imbecile speeding the wholesale destruction of the English language?
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably answering (a). If you’re answering (b), I regret to inform you that you hate the writing of C. S. Lewis.
And if you’re the sort to answer (b), the sort of person who rages at the alleged grammatical buffoonery of your fellows, I’m sure it’s because you think you’re doing us all a favor, and that your condescending tone is justified because: first, you’re being helpful regardless of the tone you’re using; second, people only learn through negative conditioning, and so it is your duty, however unpleasant, to rub their noses in it to keep them from going on doing it; third, only a truly illiterate mouth-breather would be so moronic as to make such a mistake, and such imbeciles are below contempt and probably don’t even realize that you’re condescending to them anyway; and fourth, given the Heruclean effort you’ve put into learning the English language as impeccably as you did, it’s really only fair that you get to be a little self-satisfied and perhaps even gloat a smidge.
The only problem with this view is that all you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you up. Or worse, you’re scaring people into submission to a point where they feel compelled to preface their speech with apologies for any unknown violence their words are committing against the presumed propriety of the language. Never forget, though, that language is the people’s. Your witless superstition will, by-and-large, be ignored by the speakers of the language, and the alleged impropriety will almost certainly win out in the end. Don’t mistake yourself for a brave defender of our language against the barbarians at the gates when, in truth, you’re nothing but a millennialist shouting about the end-times of the English language. Meanwhile, the world spins on, and the language flourishes, hale and hearty.
One great example of this situation is the shouting down of those who use singular they. I’ve wanted for some time to have one place to send everyone who complains about singular they, a single page that can debunk whatever junk they’re peddling against it. There’s been lots of great stuff written about why singular they is acceptable, but every time I want to smash the arguments against it, I have to waste time jumping through old Language Log posts and books and whatnot, so I figured I’d finally go about summarizing it all. Without further ado, here’s the evidence for singular they, and why you ought to stop “correcting” it.
This is a delightful read no matter who you are, and should be required reading for anyone who tries to use the argument that "singular they" is inaccurate. The full post goes on to point out 'singular they's historical usage, usage by good writers, acceptance by authorities, and a few other arguments used against this pronoun.
Personally, my view on singular they is this: As long as singular "you" is acceptable, so is singular "they". (yes, I do want to bring back thou)