This is the finest obituary I have ever read. Janet Wolfe was quite obviously a brilliant force of nature. But more than this, Margalit Fox practically re-animates her with luxuriant and vivid prose. What a joy to read. And you have my respect, Ms. Fox, since you can talk a copy-desk editor into letting you launch your piece with this graf:
So. About Janet.
Especially in light of modern gender awareness, those opposing the singular they seem antiquated. Why, even the Washington Post has switched over.
In everyday speech, singular they, the use of they/them to refer to one person, feels completely natural. But in more formal contexts, and in writing, that usage has long been frowned upon. And not just frowned upon, but banned as ungrammatical. However, it is not ungrammatical in the same way as “I didn’t knowed that” or “what are you cook for dinner tonight?” Those sentences don’t sound natural in any context.
Proponents of singular they have long argued that the prohibition makes no sense. Not only is it natural, it has been used in English for centuries. It’s in the King James Bible. Authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Thackeray, and Shaw used it. Before the production of school textbooks for grammar in the 19th century, no one complained about it or even noticed it. Avoiding it is awkward or necessitates sexist language.
Speaking of the singular they, Andy Baio went looking for information on poker champion Annie Duke, and found a Wikipedia page on Texas Hold 'Em rife with gendered language.
Because it was Wikipedia, I felt like I could do something about it. So I spent some time making the biggest edit I've ever made on Wikipedia: changing every male pronoun to gender-neutral language, sometimes rephrasing as "the player," but often using the singular they. I tried to be careful about readability, making sure to only use it in cases where it couldn't be confused with a plural group.
When Marcus Westbury moved back to Newcastle, Australia to open a bar, he was amazed that none of the downtown properties that were sitting vacant would rent to him. Instead, he came up with an ingenious plan that renovated the area.
He began contacting landlords and leasing agents, expecting to be overwhelmed with offers, but no one returned his calls. Some buildings had been purchased on the cheap by speculators, who expected to cash in when government redevelopment funds finally arrived and who were happy to leave them vacant while they waited. Others were owned by family trusts that couldn’t agree on anything except doing nothing. More than one landlord demanded rents the market couldn’t possibly bear. Westbury learned that lowering the asking price often meant writing down the value of the building, which risked triggering foreclosure. Landlords were incentivized to stand pat, while downtown fell into ruin. “No one was even trying,” Westbury said.