Linguists in America have voted the singular "they" as the word of the decade.
Simply put, it means we can use they in place of he or she (or he or she). Here are a couple of examples:
- "I asked each person on the team what they want to do."
- "Everyone said they didn't know."
Before we discuss why this is such big news, let's talk about the history of the singular they. It's not new. In fact, it's been around since the 1300s. We can see examples in Shakespeare, Dickens and Jane Austen. However, in the mid-1800s, grammarians decided that he should be used to stand for everyone, regardless of gender. It wasn't until the 1970s that the masculine rule began to be rolled back.
In many cases, the singular they sounds perfectly normal. You've almost certainly used it before. Try saying the two examples above. They sound natural, and they are grammatically correct. So why is the singular they such big news?
Modern English is becoming more and more non-gendered. We can clearly see this trend in job titles.
There are a few good reasons for this trend. First, gender simply doesn't matter when describing many things, especially jobs. Furthermore, there are laws and guidelines in place, for instance at the American Psychological Association (see "Gender", and British news service, The Guardian (see "gender issues" in the Style Guide).
Finally, gender issues such as transitioning or being non-binary are becoming increasingly well-known. Some non-binary people are known as they rather than either he or she. So being sensitive to them is becoming the norm.
In modern English, it's perfectly grammatical to use they in a singular sense. You can say, "I talked to Kim, but they said they didn't know."
So, be mindful of gendered language. And, as always, watch and listen for how English is changing.