Vocabula Review published a piece today about the use of they as a generic, gender-free singular pronoun, as in the following: “If you love someone, set them free.” Many grammarians argue that the correct phrasing of such a thought would be, “If you love someone, set him or her free,” or, in an earlier era, “If you love someone, set him free,” regardless of the sex of the antecedent.
The writer, Jjoan Ttaber Altieri, cites historical examples dating back to Shakespeare and earlier of respected writers using they in this fashion. Most of her examples appear to have been cited from Henry Churchyard’s pages on the topic. She, and Churchyard (and other writers, such as Steven Pinker) before her, argue for the revival of they as an acceptable generic singular.
Altieri writes that the use of he for the generic is a relatively recent development, dating back to eighteenth-century grammarians in England. Writers and speakers before then commonly used they as a singular generic.
I accept their arguments and in principle I agree, but I’d be loath to accept this use of they in my writing or editing. The onus against it is still so strong that one who uses it, even consciously, is deemed a lesser writer for so doing. And although I know that’s silly on its face, I’ll still allow every grammarian dog to have his or her day.