Close to a year ago I wrote at length about three instances of grammatical "rules" I describe as "mythical fussbudgetry":
- Myth 1: Don't Start Sentences with Ands or Buts
- Myth 2: Don't End Sentences with Prepositions
- Myth 3: Don't Use They as a Singular Pronoun
Today in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Anne Curzan addresses Myth 3 with her blog post "Singular 'They': A Footnote."
Curzan offers a solid solution for people who want to use they as a singular pronoun: "I tell students that they are welcome to use singular they in writing for my class, but they should footnote it the first time they use it and in the footnote explain their rationale for using singular they. And students do, both in my class and in other classes (for other classes, I tell them they’re allowed to end the footnote with an invitation for the instructor to contact me with any questions). This footnote accomplishes at least three things: It shows readers that the author is consciously making a choice to use singular they; it informs readers about legitimate reasons for using singular they, even if they disagree with its use in this context; and most importantly, it asks students to be careful, self-conscious writers, reflecting on and explaining their choices in their writing."
Curzan's proposal reminds me of a recommendation from one of my mentors in graduate school, Dr. Ralph F. Voss. In class one day, he told us that if students want to create intentional fragments in their papers for whatever reason, to indicate they did this consciously, students can just put "fi" in parentheses after the intentional fragment (like in a citation system), which stands for "fragment intended."
If you're someone like me who wants to get rid of the silly "rules" above, you and your students can use footnotes to signal these word choices and constructions were conscious choices.