Merriam‑Webster Agrees: ‘They’ Is a Singular Pronoun for Non‑Binary People


Sep 18, 2019


‘They’ is officially a grammatically correct, singular, non-binary pronoun, in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, one of 533 other new inclusions.

While they/them has gained increased popularity as pronoun choices for people who do not identify as male or female, the choice is often derided due to queerphobia — with one of the strawman arguments being that the pronouns are grammatically incorrect.

In a blog announcement, Merriam Webster stated that, “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.”

This show of progress by Merriam Webster also happened one day following a The Guardian report about 30,0000 people having signed a petition urging Oxford Dictionaries to remove sexist synonysm included in the definitions of the word ‘woman,’ such as “bitch, besom, piece, bit, mare, baggage, wench, petticoat, frail, bird, bint, biddy, filly.”

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From ‘Cunt’ to ‘Careerwoman’: the Many Ways in Which Language Propagates Sexism

Apart from Merriam Webster, the Associated Press had also introduced ‘they’ as a singular pronoun in 2017. However, the implementation of said inclusion still has room for improvement, given the AP’s recent gaffe, when they reported on singer Sam Smith revealing that their preferred pronouns are they/them — all the while misgendering Smith as ‘he’ in the copy.

In their blog release, Merriam Webster also wrote about how previously used pronouns for those who didn’t fit gender binaries were downright cruel. “In the 17th century, English laws concerning inheritance sometimes referred to people who didn’t fit a gender binary using the pronoun it, which, while dehumanizing, was conceived of as being the most grammatically fit answer to gendered pronouns around then. Adopting the already-singular they is vastly preferable. It’s not quite as newfangled as it seems: we have evidence in our files of the nonbinary they dating back to 1950, and it’s likely that there are earlier uses of the nonbinary pronoun they out there.”


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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