The article reported that the question had been discussed at length in the “Ask a Lexicographer” session at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. I could be wrong, but somehow I can’t imagine these conference attendees posting Facebook pics of themselves lounging in the hot tub while sipping drinks with little umbrellas. Talk about an intimidating group. Surrounded by such esteemed literati, I would have been too terrified to utter a word. I break out in a cold sweat just knowing the group exists. And, as if a society of editors weren’t already intimidating enough, check out the acronym: ACES. I wonder how long it took the charter members to come up with that. (Come to think of it, probably not long.)
|Problem solved. The ACES have spoken.
But as it turns out, ACES members proved not to be the stuffy traditionalists I’d envisioned. The consensus, it appears, is that not only is it acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun but it is preferred over the cumbersome alternatives of “he or she,” “he/she,” or “s/he.” As an amateur writer, I’m glad to have this issue resolved. As a former English teacher, I’m experiencing mild guilt over all those times I marked “they” with a big, red PAA (faulty pronoun-antecedent agreement.) Notice I said "mild guilt." I’ll get over it, as I’m sure all my former pupils have.
The English language is a complex and evolving organism. What works in one century . . . decade . . . year, doesn’t necessarily translate well to the following. The use of “they” as a singular pronoun has been gaining momentum ever since the 1970s, when the generic “he” became too sexist. And women of my generation learned quickly to stop saying “thongs” when referring to our sandals.
Despite my lighthearted jabs at ACES, I’m actually very grateful the society exists. Something as malleable and yet so critical to civilization as language needs a watchdog to ensure change stays within reason. Otherwise, pandemonium will ensue and what then? Participles dangling precariously like the last autumn leaf on a tree? Infinitives split with all the destructive force of splitting the atom? The elimination of “whom” from our vocabulary? It’s a slippery slope.