Graphic by Christopher Ikonomou
“They” has been named the word of the year by Merriam-Webster! The online dictionary announced that lookups for the gender-neutral pronoun increased by 313% in 2019.
GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation, Nick Adams, celebrated the statement. “Using the correct pronouns for someone is simply respectful, just like using their name. Merriam-Webster’s choice is the latest example of the growing awareness and acceptance of the fact that gender is not binary, but there is a long road ahead before language, policy, and culture are completely affirming and inclusive,” Adams said.
The dictionary’s pronouncement follows on the heels of the American Dialect Association’s selection of the singular they as the word of the year in 2015.
Merriam-Webster’s addition of they to its volumes reflects the grammar world’s slow-growing inclusion of gender nonconforming people and identities in its official style guides.
The Associated Press, the “definitive guide” for all mass communications, incorporated the singular form of they into the 2017 edition of its Stylebook, stating, “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.” This conditional acceptance comes with some caveats, such as a required clarification if a subject of a piece uses they/them pronouns, rewording when possible to avoid the singular form, and rejection of xe, ze, or other gender-neutral pronouns. The MLA Handbook, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Purdue OWL have similar limitations on using they/them, citing its colloquiality and restricting the singular they to informal writing.
Many grammar stalwarts are notoriously resistant to change, but the singular form of they has been in use in the English language since the fourteenth century. Its resurgence in popular culture and style guides reflects reorientation of grammar rules aimed at including a broader range of people and identities.
So the next time a professor tells you to use gendered language in a paper because it’s formal, tell them to get with the times!