I don’t have the wherewithal at the moment to do a diachronic* linguistic usage survey of the word “they.” (Or rather, like most bloggers, I lack the willingness to let such a survey delay rushing this blog into, eh, print.) But I am qualified to do a synchronic* survey, because my job is to read contemporary English for most of the day.
So I’m happy to agree with the two linguists filling in for William Safire at his New York Times column, because they’ve added historical weight to my case that “they” is okay. They’ve argued that “they” had long been used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun before it was ever pronounced permanently plural and replaced by “he.”
This historical weight is ultimately unnecessary to my case, because what matters for “they” today is current usage. Mark it down: if someone will keep their ears open, they will hear a singular “they” used in formal speech. I’ve heard it from the chapel platform at Bob Jones University, preached by one of our most formal and stentorian homileticians.
And you’ve heard it recently, too.
1.) Other attempts at gender neutrality (the generic she, s/he, hum, etc.) and 2.) Bible translations are separate issues.
*Diachronic = a survey of a word’s usage through (dia) time (chronos).
*Synchronic = a survey of a word’s usage at any given time—like now!