Most of our important references for English usage agree that the pronouns they, their, and them are not always the plurals we expect them to be. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary gives the plural construction of they as the first definition, but it also offers a definition (1b) that matches the archaic gender-neutral he. In other words, they is a generic singular pronoun.
Yet many style guides caution copyeditors against using singular they in published copy. How does the thoughtful editor balance style guides’ advice with the needs of the copy?
Try your hand at editing this paragraph:
The daycare center has costumes for playacting, and every child seems to have their favorite. This has sometimes lead to conflict, particularly when a newly retired firefighter visited and donated their old hat to the program. When conflict does happen, it’s a chance to remind a child the importance of waiting his turn. A child with special needs, such as use of a wheelchair, might find certain costumes difficult to deal with, and they might need extra help getting themselves ready. Be sure to allow extra time for them to get into costume, and help them adapt the costume given their particular need.
How did you do? Compare your answer to mine in the December 2017-January 2018 issue of Copyediting newsletter, ready for download!
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