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Is This the End of Civilization as We Know It?

That shriek you just heard—that was your seventh grade English teacher reacting to this news from the grammar front:

The Washington Post style guide now permits the use of they and related forms like their as gender-neutral singular pronouns.

Not sure what that means? It means that sentences like this one have been deemed acceptable:

'Everyone hopes their candidate will keep their campaign promises if elected.”

Sentences like this one, however, are being shown the door:

'Everyone hopes his or her candidate will keep his or her campaign promises if elected.”

The Post still prefers using the plural to avoid what some will continue to regard as a grammatical sin. But, 'when such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward,” they, their, etc., may be employed. They can also be used to refer to 'people who identify as neither male nor female.”

Not long after the Post announced the change, the learned linguists of the American Dialect Society issued their own announcement. They had voted the singular they their Word of the Year. It also won in the Most Useful category. So it’s not just the Post that finds it useful.

Time was when writers defaulted to masculine pronouns in sentences like the examples above, i.e., 'Everyone hopes his candidate will keep his campaign promises if elected.” As that practice waned, it left a vacuum that he or she (or the legalistic-looking he/she) has never adequately filled. While more egalitarian, he or she can be cumbersome and can result in downright silly-sounding prose.

Expect more guardians of the language to come to the same conclusion as the Post’s style overseer, Bill Walsh: The singular they is 'the only sensible solution.”

No doubt, grammar traditionalists will wring their hands and wonder what the world is coming to. But, hey, language evolves. 

If you do any marketing writing for your credit union, you’ve probably already been using they in this fashion. I hope so, anyway. Good copywriting is conversational, and only the most punctilious grammarians have ever used that he or she stuff when conversing.

Marketing and advertising copywriters have always broken rules that are scrupulously adhered to in more formal writing. They’ve done it because it works.

Take, for example, one of the most successful and influential advertising slogans ever: 'Got Milk?” Imagine if an overzealous editor had insisted on correcting its author’s grammar. How much of an impact do you think a 'Have You Got Milk?” campaign would have had?

True, one can be too colloquial. Write the way some teens talk to each other and you’ll instantly lose credibility with everyone else.

The wise copywriter breaks the rules, but breaks them judiciously.


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