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Merriam-Webster dictionary adds 'they' as nonbinary pronoun

André Wheeler
Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Attention grammar snobs: ”they” can officially be used as a singular, nonbinary pronoun. Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in America, officially recognized the usage today, when it added 533 words to its online dictionary.

The recognition ofthey” as a singular, non-gender-specific pronoun comes as its usage grows in popularity, especially among people who identify as neither male nor female. However, these adoptees frequently face critics who claim the usage is not “grammatically correct”.

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Merriam-Webster wrote a pre-emptive clapback on its blog. “We will note that ‘they’ has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s; that the development of singular ‘they’ mirrors the development of the singular ‘you’ from the plural ‘you’, yet we don’t complain that singular ‘you’ is ungrammatical; and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular ‘they’ in casual conversation and often in formal writing.”

Emily Brewster, a senior editor at the company, said: “Merriam-Webster does not try to be at the vanguard of change in the language.” But, she noted: “Over the past few decades, there has been so much evidence that this is a fully established use of ‘they’ in the English language. This is not new.”

Gillian Branstetter, a media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, sees Merriam-Webster’s decision as fitting into a larger normalization of nonbinary identities. “Overall you’re seeing workplaces, schools and hospitals recognize the current system of only offering ‘male’ and ‘female’ isn’t working for a lot of people,” she says. She points to the inclusion of “they” in the AP Press Stylebook in 2017 and 14 states offering a third gender option on driver’s licenses.

“They” has even entered Hollywood. The British singer Sam Smith made headlines last week when they announced on social media that their pronouns were now “they/them” rather than “he/him”. “I understand there will be many mistakes and mis gendering but all I ask is you please please try”, Smith wrote in an emotional series of posts. “I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you.” Smith’s announcement on Twitter has received over 14,000 comments – a passionate debate over the validity of “they” taking place in many of them.

Branstetter offers this example for anyone who might be confused: “If you are at a restaurant and you found a stranger’s phone at a table, you wouldn’t say, I found his or her phone. You would say, ‘I found their phone.’”

Merriam-Webster is not alone in its recognition. Lexicographers and linguists are coming out widely in support ofthey” as a singular pronoun. The American Dialect Society chose it as its 2015 word of the year.

Other additions to the dictionary include colorful words frequently seen on social media:

  • Dad joke: “A wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.”

  • Vacay, sesh, inspo: Vacation, session (jamming, drinking or otherwise), inspiration

  • Coulrophobia: abnormal fear of clowns

Brewster finds the modern evolution of the English language – accelerated by the internet and social media – as playful experiment. “If you think about it, hundreds of years ago what a person who could read had access to – it wasn’t that much. It was a very filtered written language. The internet has allowed to experience language in its most informal iteration in writing.”