Don’t like singular they? Tell Mike Tyson.

Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth
Mike Tyson helps James “Quick” Tillis adjust his plans in 1986.

 

 Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.

Obviously, this brilliant quote from Iron Mike works both literally and figuratively. But it’s a great and timely example of the value and utility of a singular they, which was just declared 2015’s Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society.

If you listen carefully, you can hear copy editors and the least-adaptable among us gnashing their teeth. Late last year, the Washington Post updated its style guidelines to accept singular they, and junior high school English teachers everywhere panicked and bemoaned the decline of the language and the death of rules and meaning. Of course they probably didn’t read the memo from Post copy editor Bill Walsh:

It is usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural to avoid both the sexist and antiquated universal default to male pronouns and the awkward use of he or she, him or her and the like: All students must complete their homework, not Each student must complete his or her homework.

When such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward, however, what is known as “the singular they” is permissible: Everyone has their own opinion about the traditional grammar rule. The singular they is also useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female.

See that? Singular they is acceptable only when a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward. Most of the time, there’s probably a graceful solution. And for those rare other times when there isn’t, or we’re referring to someone who prefers a gender-neutral pronoun, we’ll continue to do what I suspect we’ve already been doing this whole time.

The language isn’t going to die, everyone. We’re all going to be OK.

UPDATE! The Associated Press has finally joined the rest of the world and is grudgingly allowing singular they:

They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.

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