A lot has been said about the linguistic junta behind “gender” driven pronoun usage, which is clearly a postmodern implementation of Newspeak. I won’t add much to the pile, but will note my encounters with the incorrect use of the third-person plural – i.e., “they” and “them” – when used with singular pronouns like “someone,” “nobody,” etc. It is not, in fact, an entirely novel or politically-motivated habit. As a form of grammatical laziness, the English-speaking world has been doing it for some time. It’s like people saying, “there’s a lot of reasons for…” (when it should be “there are”).
In Maurice Baring’s novel Daphne Adeane (1927), an elderly lady remarks that “nobody is at their best” in certain social situations. Now, Baring was a very literate gentleman, who wrote about very literate upper-class characters. But even the elites of late Victorian England could be sloppy and slangy in their speech. Another example is a scene from the horror film Cat People (the 1942 version), in which the young female protagonist is being harassed by an unidentified caller. She says to a friend that she doesn’t know who “they” are, when it is clearly just one person on the other end of the line.
When growing up (in the seventies and eighties) many of us spoke of “they” and “them” when the sex and/or number of individuals referred to was vague. That said, formal reportage and writing always got it right. But already a few years ago, to my dismay, I read a newspaper story about a local suicide in which it was said of a person that “they jumped to their death.” Without making light of the tragedy, the thought that immediately crossed my mind was: did this refer to an individual with dissociative personality disorder, or someone possessed by demons?
Every culture manifests unrefined or undisciplined behavior to some degree. But better cultures always insist on formal standards to keep intellectual decline in check.