Wednesday, January 16, 2013
The legal writing listserv is abuzz with posts about whether a writer can use "they," "their," or "them" to refer to a singular noun. In legal writing, this problem tends to arise in two different situations. One is where a singular entity--often a corporation or a court--is made up of individuals. When speaking informally, many English speakers would say, "The corporation published their annual report." The problem also arises where an individual's gender is unknown or unimportant, leading to the informal wording, "A student left their book on the desk."
Language does change; for example, the second-person singular pronouns "thou" and "thee" have disappeared from contemporary English, leaving only the potentially ambiguous "you" for both the singular and the plural. (We in the South use the convenient "y'all" to indicate a plural meaning.) English may now be undergoing a change in the usage of third-person plural pronouns.
However, both of the above examples remain incorrect in current formal writing. As some listserv contributors have pointed out, using "they" for a singular antecedent is especially problematic in legal writing, which should be both formal and exact. There are several ways to avoid an incorrect "they." Instead of writing, "A lawyer should file their brief on time," a writer can make the antecedent plural: "Lawyers should file their briefs on time." For other suggestions, see my article on judges and gender-neutral language.