In class last week we discussed whether the use of plural pronouns to refer to one person was a recent phenomenon (ex: “If attacked, the victim should remain exactly where they are” instead of “If attacked, the victim should remain exactly where he or she is“). Turns out that the use of plural pronouns for singular objects (if the gender is unknown) is not new at all, but rather that the discouragement of it is, in fact, the new phenomenon (see last paragraph in the following quotation).
This was taken from Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (pages 901-903), after the authors provided quotations from Austen, Chaucer, Shaw, Auden, Shakespeare and others:
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“The examples here of the ‘great ones’ from Chaucer to the present are not lapses. They are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established four centuries before the 18th-century grammarians invented the solecism (whereby ‘he’ is to be used as the “gender-neutral” pronoun). The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in that language — and it is by no means the worst solution.
They, their, them have been used continuously in singular reference for about six centuries, and have been disparaged in such use for about two centuries. Now the influence of social forces is making their use even more attractive.”