Since its inception, the American Heritage Dictionary has tracked changes in attitudes toward usage with the guidance of the Usage Panel. A good example of change in attitude over time involves the use of they, them, and related pronouns to refer to singular antecedents. If the sentence “Each guest arrived in their own car” makes your skin crawl, you’re not alone—but you’re in a group that’s dwindling in size. We polled our panelists on this issue in 1980, 1996, 2008, and 2011. The usage note that appears at the entry for they discusses the underlying grammatical issue and presents the data from our polls:
The use of an ostensibly plural pronoun such as they, them, themselves, or their with a singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300, and over the years such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray (“A person can’t help their birth”), George Bernard Shaw (“To do a person in means to kill them”), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (“When you love someone you do not love them all the time”). The practice is so widespread both in print and in speech that it generally passes unnoticed. Forms of they are useful as gender-neutral substitutes for generic he and for coordinate forms like his/her or his or her (which can sound clumsy, especially when repeated frequently). Nevertheless, many people avoid using forms of they with a singular antecedent out of respect for traditional pronoun agreement.
Most of the Usage Panel still upholds the practice of traditional pronoun agreement, but in decreasing numbers. In our 1996 survey, 80 percent rejected the use of they in the sentence A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in. In 2008, however, only 62 percent of the Panel still held this view, and by 2011, just 55 percent disapproved of the sentence Each student must have their pencil sharpened. Moreover, in 2008, a majority of the Panel accepted the use of they with antecedents such as anyone and everyone, pronouns that are grammatically singular but carry a plural meaning. Some 56 percent accepted the sentence If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone, and 59 percent accepted Everyone returned to their seats. The trend, then, is clear. Writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage. For those who wish to adhere to the traditional rule, one good solution is to recast the sentence in the plural: People at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in.
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