Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year: ‘They’


Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years. Lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.

English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.

More recently, though, they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the dictionary this past September.

I’ve long been a staunch advocate of singular they, which I don’t find contrary to my generally conservative linguistic stance. As Merriam-Webster points out, singular they in English has a 600-year history. It’s the “they is always plural” pedants who are the upstarts, just like the Victorian know-nothings who wrongly insist one should never split an infinitive. Nonbinary they is a natural extension of that history.

Thursday, 12 December 2019