Oxford Singular 'They'

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I was going to post this a week ago, but I didn't get around to it. Rick Mansfield found an occurrence of the singular 'they' in the Oxford American Dictionary.


As I said there: I don't see the excitement, my trusty (if ancient) OED on in its entry for "they" has singular they as meaning 2: "Often used with reference to singular nouns made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= 'he or she'). And gives good English examples dating back to before the founding of the American colonies! Singular they is NOT a problem in standard English ;-)

PS have you seen my new audio blog?

The OED doesn't exhaustively update its examples or even its definitions based on changes in usage. Its entry on 'racism' is at least several decades out of date (and that's being generous). This is a grammar point anyway, and dictionaries aren't primarily in that business.

The point of this is that a lot of people resist the singular 'they' because they see it appearing only in certain kinds of places and not others. I don't know why the top journals in most disciplines, including linguistics, shouldn't count more than the grammar books that later experience the trickle-down effect from higher academia, but for some people they do. Dictionaries are usually among the later elements of the trickle-down hierarchy from popular usage to academic and formal usage and eventually to prescriptive manuals. That's why this is important evidence for the reality of the singular 'they' in contemporary English (not that it's even remotely new, as you note). The primary argument is simply that everyone does it, including professors in virtually every field and other formal writers.

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