It was hard for me to overcome elementary-school inhibitions and go with 'they', but Shakespeare really helped. Here's the Bard using singular 'they' when the gender of the person being referred to is unknown:
FRIAR LAURENCETurns out that singular 'they' was used a lot in the old days before 18th century grammarians came along and cost us a useful pronoun. Of course, singular 'they' isn't perfect, as in some cases context will leave it ambiguous with the plural 'they.' But 'he' and 'she' have even worse ambiguities, some of the other options are hard to say, and 'zie' is just too weird.
Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself.
Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans,
Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes.
Hark, how they knock! Who's there?
I have come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that singular "they" is the right solution to this, simply because people who didn't get grammar drilled into them already use it. That makes it a much easier fix than "zie," which nobody outside of the hardest of hardcore activists will ever use, simply because it sounds weird.
Indeed, I suspect that if not for the strong patriarchal bent to the 18th century, "they" would have been the choice of grammarians to replace he/she, rather than a generic "he." They're just as wrong in their own unique way, but "he" is exclusive in a way that "they" cannot be.
Kudos to you. I wholeheartedly agree.
Language Log (a superb linguistics blog) also points out a divine mandate for singular "they". (See also the somewhat more serious follow-up.)
I never realized why Americans don't like the use of 'they' as a singular, neutral pronoun. You get taught that it's incorrect? It has no such stigma here (in Ireland), and all educated and uneducated English speakers alike use the word. We never have any problems, it never causes any ambiguity, it works just fine and, as you've pointed out, it has been in use for centuries and put to eloquent use by some the best writers ever to put pen to page.
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