by Bonnie Smiler
When did they, them, and their become so singular? It seems that in current parlance one uses the plural pronoun they, them, or their following a singular antecedent. A couple examples from the Star Ledger should suffice: “I . . . ranked each artist based on the unique words used in their work,” and “ . . . a judge . . . had ordered a domestic violence defendant released pending trial, only for them to allegedly take a victim’s life.” Artist and defendant are both singular, their and them are not. There was a time when all unknown references were masculine, so his or him would be acceptably used. In these more politically correct times, an awkward his/her or him/her might be preferred.
Although technically grammatically incorrect, expanding the use of they, them, and their makes sense and certainly makes sentences less awkward. While one could rewrite a sentence to avoid ambiguous antecedent confusion, many writers, especially those under a deadline, won’t take the trouble, and a rewrite may not be so easy to do. (That’s even assuming a writer notices his or her mistake.) Down the road, if it hasn’t happened already, English writers will consider the singularity of they, them, and their an acceptable convenience and a further step on the simplification of the English language.