Language and “correctness”

My first post initially contained this first sentence:

Everyone has their parameters for hiring a freelance writer.

One of my first beta-readers alerted me to the fact that some people have issues with this construction: the use of the third-person plural pronoun as a third-person gender-neutral singular pronoun.  I don’t have problems with this construction, though there are other usages that grate (“between you and I,” “I felt badly about it,” – there are more.  I won’t go on).  There are others whom I respect who also find this to be a useful construction, but I will mention two: the website Common Errors in English and the technical linguistics blog Language Log:

The argument was settled long ago: singular they has routinely been used throughout the history of English, by all the best writers,* until certain subcases were artificially turned into “errors” by self-appointed experts. Successively less discriminating pseudo-authorities then generalized the proscription in successively sillier ways, although they have largely been ignored by the users of the language.

[Emphasis mine]

I’ll get back to that last statement in a minute, but first you might have noticed that I changed that initial sentence in the first post.  Was I backing down in my assertion (backed up by some very eminent language scholars and the “best” writers) that use of they/their to indicate a singular third person is correct?  No.  That brings us to our audience.

Users of the language – there’s the rub.  Who is your audience?  Who are you talking to?  Some people really believe that this use of they/their is an incorrect, amateurish construction in any and every case, and my use of it will throw them out of the flow of what I am saying.  They have to get around how I said something to get to the sense of what I said.

In other words, is it more important to be perceived to be technically correct or is it more important to be easily understood?  Anyone reading what I had initially written would certainly understand what I was getting at – but would their eyes and brain then alight neatly on the next thought or would they be mentally hung up by the construction of the first sentence?  If they do hang up – if the mental gears grind and smoke and they wonder, “Is she really a good writer?” or triumphantly think, “Aha – a fraud!” or any other possible response other than, “Yes, okay – and…” – will understanding prevail?

Possibly it will, but not without a lot of work on their (and possibly my) part.  In this endeavor, I am my own client.  Am I served by dragging my audience rather than leading them?  I would say no, and I would say no on behalf of any other client of mine.  Therefore I changed it.

* NB: Jane Austen – ed.

ETA: Language Log again, with a very timely post – and this is exactly the type of singular “they” that does grate.

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