They can be singular. Did you know? I’m sure Strunk and White, along with other grammarians of yesteryear, would be adamantly opposed to such willy-nilly grammatical tomfoolery. Just as they would be disagreeable to the preceding sentence. Do not affect a breezy manner is, after all, rule eight on Strunk’s and White’s “approach to style.”
Verbosity aside (Avoid fancy words, rule fourteen, notwithstanding), they has gone from a decidedly third person plural pronoun to a semi-valid option when addressing a lone person, be they an employee, truck driver, server, or grammarian. (The grammarian will be angered if they are called they. See, it is just that easy to do!)
A large part of this shift of acceptability comes from gender and equality. So this is a good thing. If a person is unsure of another’s gender when constructing a sentence, the use of they/their becomes a safe, neutral bet. You can also see how this affects the written word. Say I’m writing about the day-to-day of a hypothetical doctor:
He shows up to the office. He checks in with his nurses. He readies for the day. Then he begins seeing the first patients of the day, assessing their symptoms, and spearheading the care-plan for his charges.
One can read that description and come away with one generic, unintended thought: Why does the doctor have to be male?
So again, the gender neutrality of “they” can help one avoid even accidental sexism. It can also make sentences more concise because one can substitute out the constant use of “his or her” with the tighter “their.”
All of this is probably a good thing and any freshman English Composition student will tell you that more correct options are never a bad thing.
But let us set the actual grammar aside momentarily and instead gaze at the tragic or beautiful symbol of “they” becoming singular.
We live in an age of hyper-individualism. Most things in life are centered on the self: my choices, my money, my hopes, my dreams, my freedom, my choices, my rights. In a child’s speech pattern, “no” and “my” are early and frequent guests. A parent often has to fight against the headstrong toddler who insists on sole possession of all good things. Sharing is mandated, turning the mindset of tantrum-laced independence to one of peaceable inter-dependence. We share our toys and food and time with others; and they, with us—this is the blessed exchange of community.
But in recent times we grow up and so does our independent fervor. The My grows, the world shrinks. I may share, sure, but at no expense to myself, only as it helps and serves me. This is the wretched breakdown of community, and why we see data suggesting that we are crowded as ever but miserably alone. We cannot play with others—they has become singular.
The more hopeful view of this linguistic shift is one of unity. A synthesis of humanity that is so seamless, so life-giving, so harmonious that the they becomes singular. This is what we celebrate at a good wedding—the kind where the groom cries at the approach of his beloved and the beloved, though beautiful, seems to focus no further upon herself for the lovely sight of her committed betrothed. We see this in ballplayers perfectly executing a hit-and-run or the effortless ball-movement in which it is hard to pick out the star of the soccer team for the wonder of the team itself. We see this in friendships that lock arm-in-arm and face the troubles of the world, while laughing together through the very darkest of nights. Yes, this is a beautiful thing, a they becoming one.
As in most things in life, there are pros and cons to linguistic shifts. They bring new solutions while creating a new set of problems. But shifts have occurred since speech has existed because speech represents the way a people group understands and communicates about life, and that understanding, and the subsequent communication of understanding, is always changing. New solutions. New problems. New words. New usages. New solutions. New problems. New problems. New words. And we repeat the process for whatever the age foists at our meager yet growing understanding of complexity–whatever is thrown at us.
But that last word is the one that matters: us. We are a we. It is how we survive, how we reproduce, how we increase in number, how we solve problems, how we shift sociologically even to the level of the word (and a simple pronoun, no less!). While we are crafting an age for the singular, we must never forsake the plural. The singular grows cold and dies—the me is not enough. At the word level, let they go wherever it serves best. But at the conceptual level we must fight for the sociological shift that will shape the language of tomorrow—we must cling to the sacred plural of they.