Every grammar and usage session I attended affirmed that the singular “they” is becoming more and more acceptable. In fact, the only people who are holding back the movement are the stickler copy editors who attended the conference! A panel of lexicographers from Merriam Webster, American Heritage, and Oxford English Dictionary admitted that using “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun to replace “him or her” is perfectly fine. Merriam Webster already recognizes the singular they (see entry b). The American Heritage Dictionary isn’t far behind; their usage panel moved from an 80% rejection rate in 1996 to 55% in 2011, and they predict the trend continuing. "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 concerned with agreement, Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper advises to still use a plural verb with the singular “they,” knowing that it will be understood as singular. (Ex: Remind the caller to sign their name when they fill out their application.)
In addition to word usage, there were several sessions that, as is every good copy editor’s dream, dug into the deep, shadowy depths of grammar. I compiled a list of my 6 favorite grammar reminders that Washington Post Editor Bill Walsh clarified in his session.
- One of those are plural.
- Bob is one of those people who hates cats. Incorrect
- Bob is one of those people who hate cats. Correct
2. Don’t treat collective nouns as singular.
- A host of problems are blamed on the decline of industrial cities.
- Last January (Needs a year, especially if the current month is February.)
- Illinois senator (Is he an Illinois state senator, or a US senator from Illinois?)
- Replace it with the correct laminated document.
- Laminated weighs more than correct because you would never say “a correct and laminated document.”
- Shown below is approved, standard signage for cubicles.
- Approved and standard have equal weight because you could say "an approved and standard sign."
- The investigator said they believed Bazzano….was lying.
- The investigator said they believed that Bazzano was lying.
- (President Barack) Obama (Unnecessary!)