The "Ask the Editor" series on Merriam-Webster's website has been enlightening, if only because the subjects they've chosen so far have been sacred cows among grammar puritans and the stances the editors have taken have been towards linguistic freedom.
For example, the video (sorry, there's no transcript and no embed) on ending sentences with prepositions was freeing for me; it's not that I never end sentences with prepositions, but just that I felt guilty, like I was getting away with something in the blog format that I wouldn't normally be allowed in the written word. Now I don't know what I was so nervous about. (Huzzah)
The latest video that I stumbled upon while trying to confirm a rumor I heard about the origin of a word. Apparently, it's perfectly acceptable to use "they" instead of "she or he" and "their" instead of "his or her." As in:
- Everyone should drink from their bottles after they finish walking.
- Someone who feels guilty knows what they've done.
- A parent has to wake up early to send their kids to school.
I was taught that that was incorrect; "they" is plural, so the writer should use a singular pronoun like "he" (what can I say, it was Indiana). In fifth grade I refused to use "he" to refer to a person whose gender I didn't know, but soon learned that "he or she" is cumbersome after the first, I don't know, two or three times one uses it.
The Merriam-Webster's video cites an example of singular-they from as late as the 17th century and blames the current ban on singular-they on 18th century grammarians. The fact that the usage is at least understood nowadays and sounds more natural than some of the alternatives shows that our language hasn't evolved so much that singular-they is incomprehensible.
Since American English, unlike French or Spanish, isn't controlled from up high by a board of linguists who determine what's correct and what isn't, our rules come from usage. Nowadays inaccuracy in terms of gender (using "he" or "man" to refer to people of either gender) offends our senses more than inaccuracy in terms of number. And we read singular-they more often now as writers look for something inclusive that doesn't take so much time to write or read.
Ze and hir have been proposed as alternatives and a few people even use them regularly, but the issue there is that most Americans aren't familiar with those words. Yes, the more writers consciously choose to use them the more familiar readers will become with them, but why do that when there are three words - they, their, and them - that readers are already familiar with that get the job done?
(Perhaps ze and hir should be saved for situations where the person being discussed identifies as outside the gender binary? Such a conversation already implies that the interlocutors are familiar with someone who identifies as neither male nor female.)
I'm sure someone could search the archives here at Bilerico and find dozens of examples of me using singular-they, but now I'll be using it with pride - no less an authority than Merriam-Webster approves.