The American Dialect Society chose the singular “they” as its Word of the Year. Do you think using “they” to refer to one person is weird, informal, and wrong? Well, I’ve been doing it, so you can judge for yourself.
If you want details on the debate on why “they” makes sense, see my post from earlier in the year. Suffice it to say that it eliminates the “he or she” that makes your writing lumpy.
The real question is, can you write this way without feeling self-conscious? There are uses of the singular “they” that will glide right paste the reader’s grammar detectors, while others seem to stand out and challenge people.
I’ve been trying it out, and it’s liberating. Like all new things, it’s sometimes uncomfortable, and other times, you feel as if you have thrown off a silly rule that was getting in the way of communicating clearly.
To give you a good sample, I went through the first draft of my upcoming book on writing. These are actual, unedited out-of-context sentences using the singular “they.” How do they feel to you?
Don’t disappoint the reader once they open the email. Tell them your objective and the action you want in the opening sentences.
Is this the outline of a good book? No one could possibly know. It’s like looking at the skeleton of a potential blind date and trying to figure out if you think they’re attractive.
If you show [a fat outline] to an editor or collaborator, they can critique the organization, but shouldn’t word-edit.
And if you work with an editor, they can see what you’re planning and have a meaningful conversation. An editor who approves a traditional outline has, frankly, no idea what they’re getting. The editor who reads your fat outline can tell you where you may be going wrong, and where they’ve got suggestions for research that can help.
Remember that these files will appear on someone else’s hard drive or folder. They will spot your content a lot easier if it’s not just called “marketing blog post” or “Chapter 5.” The version number allows you to communicate more easily about what they’re looking at. When they send it back, it should have the same name with “JB edits” tacked on, to indicate that JB has edited it.
Finally, get used to Skyping, which you can do from anywhere in the world when you both have a computer. You’ll want to see your editor’s face even if they’re in Singapore, to see if they’re actually upset or just being sarcastic.
Ask the writer what they think isn’t working. Keep an eye out for that as you read.
They [the writer] asked for your help for a reason – because you’re good with ideas, good with words, good on the topic, or just a good sounding board. Try to live up to what they’re seeking. If they want your technical expertise, don’t concentrate on word edits.
Finding pleasure in the misfortune of others – schadenfreude – is completely normal. It’s one of the joys of editing. Just try not to show it in front of the person you’re editing. You’ll both be happier and the results will be better (and they’ll learn more).
I will rewrite some of these, but I’ll keep most of them. There is no “he or she” anywhere in this book. And it’s better that way.
Learn to love the singular “they.” It’s here. You may as well get used to it.