"Every mother ... they"

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Andrew Sullivan has an entry about "s/he," or, really, the singular "they" with a collegial link that I'll gladly take as an invitation to weigh in on the subject: 


Man (emoticon goes here), do writers and copy editors wish the singular "they" were standard! It's not, yet, but here's why it would be handy if it were: Write "he" about a nonspecific person and you're a sexist. Write "she" and you're a flaming feminist. Write "he or she" and you're a pedant. Write "they" and you're an ignoramus. 

We word people can't do much about the political implications of phrasing, so we're left to consider what makes a person look or sound pedantic, prissy, inattentive, lazy, stupid, or ignorant. In the case of the singular pronoun, the version about which it's likeliest that standards will change -- and the version about which we can do the most to change them -- is  "they." I'm doing my bit right now.

Apparently, the singular "they" is more nearly standard here in the U.K.: This morning, without even trying, I spotted one in "The Sunday Telegraph," which was delivered to my room along with breakfast. The silly thing is that it was in an all-female context, like "Every mother ... they." Of all places where a generic pronoun is pointless!


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Visit Barbara Wallraff’s blog, at barbarawallraff .theatlantic.com, to see more commentary on language and to submit Word Fugitive queries and words that meet David K. Prince’s need. Readers whose queries are published and those who take top honors will receive an autographed copy of Wallraff’s most recent book, Word Fugitives. More

Barbara WallraffBarbara Wallraff, a contributing editor and columnist for The Atlantic, has worked for the magazine for 25 years. She is also a weekly syndicated newspaper columnist for King Features and the author of Word Fugitives (2006), Your Own Words (2004), and the national best-seller Word Court (2000). Her writing about language has appeared in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Wilson Quarterly, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Magazine.

Wallraff has been an invited speaker at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the National Writers Workshop, the Nieman Foundation, Columbia Journalism School, the British Institute Library of Florence, and national or international conventions of the American Copy Editors Society, the Council of Science Editors, the International Education of Students organization, and the Journalism Education Association. She has been interviewed about language on the Nightly News With Tom Brokaw and dozens of radio programs including Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, and All Things Considered. National Public Radio's Morning Edition once commissioned her to copy edit the U.S. Constitution. She is a member of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel. The Genus V edition of the game Trivial Pursuit contains a question about Wallraff and her Word Court column.

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