[Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 22, 2017.]
Q: I’ve been told that it’s now acceptable to use “their” when referring to a single person (to avoid the awkwardness of “his/her” and the like). Example: “What beliefs does a student have embedded in their own world view?” Please tell me if this is correct.
A: In our world view, it’s best avoided. We’re not alone in this. Using the plural pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to singular antecedents is considered a misusage by sticklers.
However, this is a convention that is widely ignored, even by competent, educated writers. Why? Obviously, there’s a gap in English, and people feel the need for a pronoun that’s not only gender-free but number neutral as well.
With that in mind, it’s important to know that historically “they” & company were in fact used for centuries as all-purpose pronouns, and nobody made a fuss about it until the mid-18th century.
We had a posting on the blog a few years ago about this very subject.
More recently, we wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine that went much deeper into the history of all this.
The problem is usually easy enough to avoid. In a sentence like the one you give, for example, just write, “What beliefs do students have embedded in their own world views?”
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