Some of you may think that "everybody loves their mother" is a bit of recent colloquial ugliness born from post-feminist fear of giving offense. But this is not so. Ever since we lost the gender-neutral pronouns that Middle English had in abundance -- both "ou" and "a" could serve -- speakers of English have struggled with how to name the unknown person. In 1850 the British Parliament, tired of seeing "him or her" hundreds of times in some documents, actually passed a law saying that "he" would serve a dual purpose: In all acts, words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females. Because the Irish constitution refers to the President several times as "he", some wags actually filed a lawsuit trying to block the inauguration of a female President; the Irish Supreme Court ruled that in this case he is "gender neutral."
The use of "they" as a singular pronoun can be traced back to the 15th century. Caxton's Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489) has, Eche of theym sholde ... make theymselfe redy. But such examples are not very common, and we probably know about them only because recent grammarians have gone searching. Language historians think, though, that "they" has served this purpose in common speech for centuries. They think this -- and it is a hard thing to know, since we have almost no record of what common speech was like before the advent of sound recording -- because grammar books have waged a 250-year campaign against the usage. Along with the double negative, the confusion of number embodied in their minds the slothful habit of lower-class imprecision. Lindley Murray's 1795 English Grammar offer, as an example of "false syntax,"
Can anyone, on their entrance into the world, be fully secure that they shall not be deceived?No, no, it must be his entrance, and he. (But where shall he find such security? Lindley did not say, leaving the eternal question unanswered in favor of correcting the grammar.)
Virginia Wolf tried to make "one" serve the purpose, but that never caught on. (Because, if you ask me, it makes you sound like some twee hypersensitive English literateur, and who wants that?) Neither did any of the proposals made over the years by language reformers, such as thon and ip. So we are stuck, and the only solution at hand is the one that has carried on through sloppy popular speech despite the fulminations of grammarians.
Unable to write a singular "they" myself, I have always just recast such sentences entirely into the plural: All people love their mothers. And thus I will probably keep doing, because my internal alarms won't be stilled.
The question I face, though, is what to do when students employ this locution? Should I take a stand on the battlements of grammatical tradition and the logic of number, and hurl red darts at such sentences? I know this is becoming common in ordinary speech, but it is still not acceptable in formal composition. Or should I stand back and let the language solve this very real problem in its own way, hoping that in a century "everybody loves their mother" will seem perfectly elegant? I wonder.