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I am not sure whether the following uses of they are acceptable in educated speech when referring to a singular referent:

  1. I swear more when I'm talking to a boy because I'm not afraid of shocking them.

  2. No girl should have to wear school uniform because it makes them look like a sack of potatoes.

  3. I had a friend in Paris, and they had to visit the doctor for a month.

  4. A teacher asked me to give their book to John.

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I swear more when I'm talking to boys because I'm not afraid of shocking them.

better matches plurality.

No girl should have to wear a school uniform because it makes them look like a sack of potatoes.

no girl is not specific, so using them is OK. However:

Girls should not have to wear a school uniform because it makes them look like a sack of potatoes.

would be more natural.

I had a friend in Paris, and he/she had to visit the doctor for a month.

Obviously you know the gender of the friend, so just use it.

A teacher asked me to give his/her book to John.

Again, you know the gender of the teacher, so use it.

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  • I agree, subject and predicate must match in number. "Gender neutral" they for singular seems against nature. Even it is more suited, if a new word (the better solution) is not desired to be created. I mean, English is already quite confusing as it is, why cripple it even more? – virolino Feb 6 '19 at 9:06
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I would say that 1 is correct because it implies you are talking about all boys in the plural, not just the one you are swearing at.

I would say that 2 is correct because again you are implying many girls.

3 I would say is not correct and the correct word would be he or she, but by using they you can cover both sexes at once.

4 Again this simply covers the case for not declaring the sex of the teacher. In our politically correct world I expect this term to become more used so as not to draw attention to those who feel they are neither he or she.

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Oxford Living Dictionaries give this among their examples of gender-neutral they:

‘I mentioned this to someone at work today and they looked at me as if I were a space alien.’

In a usage note, Oxford comment that, recently:

they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop).

Your question was, in effect, whether gender-neutral they was acceptable in "educated speech" in cases where the gender of the referent is already known - as in Oxford's example above.

In my experience, the answer is yes.

Still, there remain some who would criticise such usage, as the other responses to your question show. Even in contexts where the referent's gender is unknown, there are prescriptivists who would prefer to avoid they, though their number and influence are undoubtedly diminishing, and on the whole they are more likely to object to written use than to spoken.

(I agree with user3169 that the first two sentences would sound more natural in the plural, and I also agree with Ermintrude that even if those two sentences are left as they are, they are less likely to raise objections than the other two, because the listener might interpret "them" as shorthand for "the girls" or "the boys" rather than as a gender-neutral singular.)

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