There has been a lot of fuss over the years about using the word “he” when referring to a general unidentified person. Somewhere along the line authors (or editors) began using “he/she”, “he or she”, or even just “she” in these instances so everyone feels included. A few even alternate between “he” and “she” for each occurrence. All of these options are awkward and confusing.
The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “they” lists this as definition number 2:
2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’).
Several examples are given dating back as far as the year 1526. Some dictionaries and usage manuals grudgingly mention this usage of “they”, adding that this is not acceptable in formal writing (neglecting to mention that one uses the word “one” in formal writing).
The fact is that “they” is singular in this case and it is grammatically correct to use “they” instead of the awkward modern alternatives. This has always been true. The word “they” has always been plural or singular depending on what “they” is referring to.
How can “they” be plural sometimes and singular sometimes? That would mean we have to use “they are” when it’s plural, and “they is” when it’s singular, right? Nonsense. “You” can be either plural or singular depending on context, yet we never say “you is”, but always “you are” and no one is confused by this.
Just like “you”, “they” can be plural or singular, and is a great way to eliminate the “he/she” nonsense from the English language.
What, you didn’t know that?