Hello, I'm Georgia and wonder is my center! I'm a 20 3/4-year-old university student who likes books, art, science, and other pretty things.
regardless of “they” as a singular pronoun being gramatically correct or not, it’s troubling that you value grammar over someone’s comfort in pronouns and identity
i have a lot of passion about this topic as a linguist which i will lay out now because i’m feeling particularly passionate at the moment, i guess, because that’s better than studying for finals.
starting at the beginning, there are basically two ways of looking at language: prescriptely or descriptively. prescriptivists are the ones who come up with unnecessary rules for grammar (like absolutely anyone who tries to tell you there’s a difference between who and whom anymore). prescriptivists are the ones who decide that certain socioeconomic groups should speak a certain way. they’re the ones that create rules for language to serve their own agendas. robert lowth was an english bishop who decided english should be more like latin and basically fucked up everything for schoolchildren in english-speaking countries forever by making them learn arbitrary rules. i’ve seen another post about him floating around talking about his role in saying that ‘they’ can’t be singular, but as mentioned on his wikipedia page, he’s most prominently known for saying that sentences can’t end with a preposition.
descriptivists, on the other hand, are normal, decent linguists whose interest in language is only to observe and document and maybe figure out what the deal really is with language rather than meddle and change things like the world’s most boring supervillain.
so why this little intro ling lesson is relevant is that it was 18th century prescriptivists who said, among other things, that ‘they’ couldn’t function as a singular pronoun (despite the fact that singular 'they' has been used as far back as middle english). the main reason this is even a problem now is that people like lowth were really influential. it’s astounding how rapidly a culture’s perception of language can change when certain grammatical constructions are deemed either more aristocratic or looked down upon (see: african american vernacular english, which has much more complex tense marking than standard american english, but is mostly considered to be spoken by the uneducated). so within years of lowth publishing his book on grammar, schools had made it a law that english would be taught that way so that students would sound ‘educated.’
as such, it has been pounded into students’ heads since the 1700s that ‘they’ is plural. prescriptivists of the time were so effective at changing the language that people spoke that now people find the idea of using ‘they’ in the singular distasteful (despite the fact that literally everyone who isn’t a pretentious dick does it anyway) because it’s easy to say that they is just singular when teaching grammar to kids because actual linguistics is complicated and kids are dumb or whatever. rachel lagunoff published her dissertation in 1997 about the singular ‘they’ and it’s really good, but i can’t provide a link because of copyright infringement, but she makes some good arguments, such as the thought that maybe ‘they’ in english functions like ‘on’ in french, which can be a semantically genderless 3rd person singular pronoun OR a first person plural pronoun, the verb of which uses 3rd person singular morphology. interestingly, i don’t think french people complain about this dual function of a pronoun.
the main point is that english speakers all use ‘they’ in singular environments. in fact, in recent generations, the prevalence of singular ‘they’ has increased a lot because the collective grammar of english has been undergoing a shift that means that basically more and more people have no problem saying ‘there was this shitty guy who fucked up english grammar and i really hate them.’ like, literally how long did it take me to grasp the concept that i could NOT use ‘them’ to corefer to ‘everyone’? i was in high school by the time i finally figured that one out.
so when people say that it makes them uncomfortable to use ‘they’ to refer to one singular person, it’s because of the grammar of some shitty guys in the 1700s, but when they then refuse to use it in a singular fashion in their normal speech using their normal grammar that includes a singular ‘they,’ those people are kinda just being sacks of garbage.
excellent criticism by friend Andrew and really makes grammar/literature nerds like me question why we were taught what we were taught and why we value what we were taught so much more highly than actual usage in real speech.