There is an awkward, long-standing, and frequently occurring problem of how to refer in the third person to someone whose gender is unknown. The use of ‘he or she’ or ‘him or her’ is the traditional option but as anyone will attest, this is cumbersome and inelegant for both the writer and the reader. It also does not address the question of people whose gender identification does not fit into the binary category.
The singular ‘they’ has been the solution that seems to have caught on and now it has been voted ‘Word of the Year’ by 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting. This usage of the word had already made into some style guides such as at the Washington Post.
An example: “Everyone wants their cat to succeed.”
Earlier, the so-called proper way to say it would have been, “Everyone wants his or her cat to succeed.”
The Post’s style guide ratified this usage last month, which caused some grammar pedants to shriek. But as Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained, the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
I like this and had adopted this practice some time ago. It was difficult at first because this use stuck in my craw but now I do it almost without thinking and it seems natural. But at a meeting where this was discussed, some of my university colleagues claimed that they were still resisting.
However, as with most things, context is everything. There are situations where it does not sound quite right because of the importance of the fact that only one person is involved and in those situations I fall back on he or she or some other mechanism.