"What did you bring that book that I don't like to be read to out of up for?"
-- child to parent.
"I believe it's strictly a matter between the patient and his doctor."
-- senator Hayakawa opines upon the subject of abortion.
"The sample for resumé stock is missing, because sadly enough, someone brought it upon themself to steal it."
-- notice posted at UCSC copy center, summer 1991.
"No mother should be forced by federal prosecutors to testify against their child."
-- Monica L.'s mother's lawyer.
These files contain a list of over 75 occurrences of the words "they"/"their"/"them"/"themselves" referring to a singular antecedent with indefinite or generic meaning in Jane Austen's writings (mainly in her six novels), as well as further examples of singular "their" etc. from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and elsewhere. While your high-school English teacher may have told you not to use this construction, it actually dates back to at least the 14th century, and was used by the following authors (among others) in addition to Jane Austen: Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Spectator, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, Frances Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding, Maria Edgeworth, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot [Mary Anne Evans], Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, John Ruskin, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, W. H. Auden, Lord Dunsany, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis.
Singular "their" etc., was an accepted part of the English language before the 18th-century grammarians started making arbitrary judgements as to what is "good English" and "bad English", based on a kind of pseudo-"logic" deduced from the Latin language, that has nothing whatever to do with English. (See the 1975 journal article by Anne Bodine in the bibliography.) And even after the old-line grammarians put it under their ban, this anathematized singular "their" construction never stopped being used by English-speakers, both orally and by serious literary writers. So it's time for anyone who still thinks that singular "their" is so-called "bad grammar" to get rid of their prejudices and pedantry!
The following is a brief potted history of this construction:
In Old English, the masculine gender was used as the "unmarked" default for some purposes, but the problem of which pronouns to use with an indefinite singular antecedent (which can refer to both men and women) did not exist in quite the same way that it does in more recent English. This is because in Old English there was a system of arbitrary "grammatical gender", in which nouns were assigned a gender which was often independent of the biological sex (if any) of the noun's referent (as also happens in modern German, French etc.), and articles, demonstratives, and adjectives (as well as third person singular pronouns) all took on different forms according to the grammatical gender of the noun words they accompanied. It was apparently in early Middle English, with the transition to a system of "natural gender" (in which the third person singular pronouns are almost the only surviving linguistic markers of gender, and they are basically used in accordance with the biological sex of the referents of their antecedent nouns), that there arose the pronominal "generic masculine" construction as such -- in which it is only by a separate convention (somewhat isolated from regular rules of pronoun agreement) that masculine pronouns are used in sentences of the type "Everybody loves his own mother".
However, not long afterwards the "singular their" construction ("Everybody loves their own mother") also came into existence, and is attested starting in the late 1300's. So from the fourteenth century on, both "singular their" and the pronominal generic masculine existed in English, and were two competing solutions for the same problem.
From then on, "singular their" was used without much inhibition (see the examples from the OED) and was not generally considered "bad grammar". It is true that starting in the 16th century, when English grammar began to be a subject of study, some rules of Latin grammar were applied to English; and that the Latin-based rules of grammatical agreement might have been seen as forbidding the English singular "their" construction -- if they were interpreted in a certain linguistically naïve way. (This may explain why certain classical-language-influenced authors, such as the translators of the King James Bible, tended to use singular "their" somewhat infrequently -- but see Phillipians 2:3.) However, the earliest specific condemnation of singular "their" that Bodine was able to find (in her 1975 article) dated only from 1795 (more than two centuries after English grammar started being taught, and at least several decades after the beginning of the 18th century "grammar boom").
So it seems that it was only in the late 18th century or early 19th century, when prescriptive grammarians started attacking singular "their" because this didn't seem to them to accord with the "logic" of the Latin language, that it began to be more or less widely taught that the construction was bad grammar. The prohibition against singular "their" then joined the other arbitrary prescriptions created from naïve analogies between English and Latin -- such as the prohibition against ending a sentence with a preposition.
But through the 19th and 20th centuries, singular "their" has still continued to be used by a number of even somewhat "literary" authors, as well as commonly in the speech of even many educated individuals.
It is interesting that almost as soon as the banning of singular "their" by grammarians and schoolteachers had gained some degree of acceptance (making many feel that the singular "their" construction was out of place in writing), some people began feeling dissatisfaction with the other alternatives which were permitted by the arbitrary edicts of prescriptive grammarians. So already in 1808/1809, noted author Samuel Taylor Coleridge seems to have rejected "generic masculine" he in some cases (as not being appropriately gender-neutral) -- and since he apparently did not consider singular "their" to be permissible, and probably felt that "he or she" was too cumbersome (especially in repetition), he settled on "it" as the only available solution, as discussed in the following passage:
QUÆRE -- whether we may not, nay ought not, to use a neutral pronoun, relative or representative, to the word "Person", where it hath been used in the sense of homo, mensch, or noun of the common gender, in order to avoid particularising man or woman, or in order to express either sex indifferently? If this be incorrect in syntax, the whole use of the word Person is lost in a number of instances, or only retained by some stiff and strange position of the words, as -- "not letting the person be aware wherein offense has been given" -- instead of -- "wherein he or she has offended". In my [judgment] both the specific intention and general etymon of "Person" in such sentences fully authorise the use of it and which instead of he, she, him, her, who, whom.
-- Anima Poetæ: From the Unpublished Note-Books of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge (1895), p. 190. ["Homo" and "mensch" are Latin and German words which mean `man' in a general sex-neutral sense, as opposed to "vir" and "mann", which mean `man' in the specifically masculine sense.]
Similarly, dissatisfaction with generic "he" and the other prescriptively-allowed alternatives led to proposals for neologistic English gender-neutral singular human pronoun words beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, as can be seen at Dennis Baron's "Word that Failed" page.
Recently, various new constructions or new words have been proposed to mitigate perceived English linguistic sexism; these are innovations, and must be evaluated as such. But singular "their" (etc.) is not an innovation, but old established good usage. So here anti-sexism and traditional English usage go hand-in-hand -- and those who object to singular "their" can find no support from history, linguistics, or the aim of inclusive language.
Already in 1894, the famed grammarian and linguist Otto Jespersen (who was decidedly not a feminist himself) wrote in his book Progress in Language: With Special Reference to English (§24) that "it is at times a great inconvenience to be obliged to specify the sex of the person spoken about. [...] if a personal pronoun of common gender was substituted for he in such a proposition as this: `It would be interesting if each of the leading poets would tell us what he considers his best work', ladies would be spared the disparaging implication that the leading poets were all men." (so that it can hardly be claimed that a concern about such matters is only a recent outgrowth of 1970's feminism or so-called "PC" ideology).
Contrary to what some people apparently believe -- that as soon as speakers deviate in the slightest degree from the prescriptive rules inculcated in schools, the English language then begins to spontaneously degenerate into a chaos of incoherent mumbles -- there are actually clearly-defined patterns in the use of singular "their" etc. Such plural pronouns can only be used with a morphologically and syntactically singular antecedent when what it refers to is semantically collective and/or generic and/or indefinite and/or unknown. (A lack of knowledge about the gender of what is referred to, or an "epicene" reference to both genders or indefinitely to either, will in many cases help to make the use of singular "their" sound acceptable, by contributing to such semantic indeterminacy; however, note that unspecified gender is actually neither a necessary or sufficient condition for use of singular "their" -- see below for non-"epicene" examples of this construction.)
Where singular "their" cannot be used is when referring to a strongly-individualized single person about whom there is some specific information. So the following attempt at pronominal reference would fail, even if one did not know (or did not wish to reveal) the sex of "Chris": "Chris was born on February, 25th 1963, the youngest of three siblings, is 5 feet 9 inches tall with red hair, graduated from Slippery Rock college, is currently working as an accountant, has never married, and is fond of listening to jazz. They..." (This shows that singular "they"/"them"/"their" cannot be used in all cases of unknown or indefinite gender.)
These semantic factors are gradient, which is why some speakers find "their" etc. which refers back to an indefinite pronoun such as "anybody" more acceptable than cases of "their" etc. referring back to a singular concrete noun. So in the great majority of cases in Jane Austen's writings, singular "their" has indefinite pronouns or quantifier words as its antecedent; there are also a few cases of "a person", "any young person", and "any man" as the antecedent, but no cases of a more specific noun phrase as the antecedent (except perhaps one case of "any acquaintance" embedded in a parallel coordinate construction). (It is significant that in one of the two cases I have found of the generic masculine construction in Jane Austen the antecedent is "the reader", with a definite article and a concrete noun.)
"And this, too, she calls a frolic, or in her own vulgar language, fun."
-- Lady Delacour in Chapter IV of Maria Edgeworth's Belinda
Jane Austen's attitude towards singular "their" is shown by the fact that she uses it even in the narration of her novels -- it is conspicuously not confined to the quoted speech of vulgar and ignorant characters, in the way that certain other constructions in Jane Austen are.
For example, phrases of the type "me and..." are used as the subject of a verb only by characters such as Lydia Bennet of Pride and Prejudice ("Kitty and me were to spend the day there... Mrs. Forster and me are such friends!", "...as we went along, Kitty and me drew up all the blinds, and pretended there was nobody in the coach", all from Chapter 39); Lucy Steele of Sense and Sensibility ("...my sister and me was often staying with our uncle..." from Chapter 22, and "Ann and me are to go, the latter end of January, to some relations who have been wanting us to visit them these several years" from Chapter 24); and Mrs. Elton of Emma ("Neither Mr. Suckling nor me had ever any patience with them; and we used sometimes to say very cutting things!", from Chapter 38). Similarly, the word "fun" is only used once by John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey and eight times by Lydia Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, and the main users of "ain't" are Nancy Steele and Mrs. Jennings of Sense and Sensibility.
It's also interesting that in several of the examples (they are pointed out in the list), singular "their" refers to each of several women, and so was not used to express gender-neutrality. The reason for this is that singular "their" can serve as a general way of expressing indefiniteness, which need not have anything whatever to do with gender-neutrality. So for example, Shakespeare wrote "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend" (Comedy of Errors, Act IV Scene 3), and in Mrs. Gaskell's 1855 novel North and South, a male character says "I was never aware of any young lady trying to catch me [i.e. matrimonially], nor do I believe that anyone has ever given themselves that useless trouble".
The total number of occurrences of singular "their" etc. found in Austen's six novels was 75, distributed as follows (see also the more detailed statistics):
This is a selective condensation and rearrangment of a posting on the LINGUIST mailing list:
What follows is a list of references that were sent to me by various individuals on the subject of language and gender, especially the problem of `generic' or epicene pronouns.
(A summary on the "generic masculine" and related issues in English, with some further references, is available on-line as section 5 of the paper "Why there are so few Female Computer Scientists" by Ellen Spertus.)