"Be careful, they're out there."
Me not being the grammarphile some are, asked Cristi the other day about the following issue.
I know this is pretty much common knowledge to all you GRAMMARFANS out there (you know who you are), and in all honesty I was well aware of the answer myself. I just didn't want to believe it. The technical answer is that: Yes, it is wrong.
Me: Cristi, you who are knowledgable about this sort of thing, is it incorrect to write/say "The author is responsible for the work they have created".
Cristi: Yes and no. No and yes.
But why? Well, your English teacher says that there is a disagreement in singular/pluralness of "the author" and "they". They, of course, refers to more than one person. The author, in turn, refers to one person. The author.
"They" is plural, I suppose. However, I don't think that it's as cut and dry as we might like to believe.
We Americans love a good conspiracy. Don't we now? In fact, Europeans seem to be down with conspiracies too, but that's Europe for you.
Me: Who killed JFK?
You: THEY did.
Now just who the hell is they? They is anyone and no one. They is the uncountable persons or peoples behind the JFK assassination.
In this case they does not function in the typical 3rd person plural way. Instead it's more of a 3rd person uncertain count pronoun. When one says "They did." They refer to that which they do not know. If they were named then they would be known. Additionally, it is possible to assume that one person could be behind the killing. However, the speaker cannot obviously say that for certain.
If one said "One did." One would seemingly know the number of possible conspirators.
Moving backwards. This seems to apply to the sentence "The author is responsible for the work they have created." The sentence is broad referring to all possible authors and all possible works. But only one individual author and work is considered by the sentence at the same time. Thus the sentence takes on sort of hybrid singular/plural meaning. Or at least, that's the intent.
One could of course use he or she instead of "they". But this has problems all of it's own. What about hermaphrodites? Are they not responsible for the works they have created? Should we say "he and/or she"? Now it's even gawkier. "They" saves of the trouble of even involving gender, saves us the trouble of watching ourselves from writing gender normative pieces.
So let's cut the bologna. They works, and the people that use it are out there.