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Merriam-Webster expands definition of ‘they’ as a singular nonbinary pronoun

Merriam-Webster announced Tuesday their addition of the use of “they” as a singular, non-binary pronoun.

New Words About Race and Identity

“On a more serious note, several new entries are for words that address the complex ways we view ourselves and others and how we all fit in.


    • They: expanded to include this sense: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” It’s an expansion of a use that is sometimes called the “singular they” (and one that has a long history in English). When a reflexive pronoun corresponding to singular use of they is needed, themself is seeing increasing use.
    • Inclusive: A new sense has been added: “allowing and accommodating people who have historically been excluded (as because of their race, gender, sexuality, or ability).”
    • Colorism: prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.

they

pronoun
\ ˈt͟hā \


—used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary
// I knew certain things about … the person I was interviewing.… They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as nonbinary — that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school.
— Amy Harmon

“Evidence for they as it is used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as all over social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. There’s no doubt that it is an established member of the English language, which means that it belongs in Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries,” Merriam-Webster Senior Editor and Lexicographer Emily A. Brewster told TransAdvocate. “Nonbinary they takes a plural verb, despite its singular referent, which can make the grammatically conservative uncomfortable. It’s helpful to remember that the pronoun you was initially plural, which is why it too takes the plural verb even when it’s referring to a single person. “You are” has, of course, been perfectly grammatical for centuries.”

“The language’s lack of an exclusive gender-neutral pronoun is famous, and they has been quite ably filling in for more than 600 years. Its use largely goes unnoticed in such construction as ‘No one has to use it if they don’t want to,’ and it’s quite possible that the nonbinary they is headed for a similarly unremarkable fate.”

Merriam-Webster notes in a blog post that people have been using they as a singular pronoun since the 1300s, and quoted an 1881 letter in which Emily Dickinson refers to a person of unknown gender with the pronouns theytheirs, and even themself. The post also mentions that using you as a singular pronoun wasn’t always considered grammatically correct, either: it was born out of necessity, gained popularity in casual conversation, and eventually became formally accepted as a singular pronoun.

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