Gender-Neutral Singular They

On January 8th, 2016, approximately 300 linguists crammed into a room to vote on the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year. From microaggression to man bun to emoji with x-rated connotations, dozens of lexical items were debated, but only one could take home the ultimate honor of Word of the Year. This year that title went to they, or more specifically, to the gender-neutral singular use of they.

The current discussion of they touches on two distinct conversations: grammar usage and gender identity. Many style guides instruct editors to never use they with a singular antecedent. By these rules, the sentence “Everyone knows they should eat vegetables” is incorrect because everyone takes a singular pronoun. Instead the sentence should be “Everyone knows he or she should eat vegetables.” However this second option is extremely cumbersome and is generally ignored in less formal environments. This grammar rule also brings up the discussion of gender identity. If a person doesn’t identify as he or she, what is the appropriate (and grammatical) pronoun to use?

While the use of singular they has been contested over the years, it’s nothing new. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and other beloved writers of the English literary canon have been opting for singular they for centuries. So why now? What about the use of they in 2015 inspired a room full of linguists to anoint it with the lofty title of Word of the Year?

In early December, Dictionary.com announced its own Word of the Year, identity, which was greatly influenced by major cultural conversations surrounding gender identity. Increased awareness and openness in discussing gender identity has ushered in language-related questions: What is a person’s preferred pronoun? Is it grammatical to use they to refer to an individual who is outside the gender binary? What honorific do you use to show respect to a person who doesn’t identify as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.?

Perhaps one of the most high-profile discussions of they came from Bill Walsh, a copy editor at the Washington Post, when he announced in December that the Post’s official style guide now allows the use of gender-neutral singular they. He called the use of they “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Not all style guides have made this shift. In a New York Times Magazine piece from January 2015, writer Dashka Slater notes that even though the article’s subject Sasha Fleischman is transgender and prefers they over he or she, the New York Times style guide does not accept this usage. Slater writes:

Telling Sasha’s story also poses a linguistic challenge, because English doesn’t offer a ready-made way to talk about people who identify as neither male nor female. Sasha prefers “they,” “it” or the invented gender-neutral pronoun “xe.” The New York Times does not use these terms to refer to individuals.

That was January, and a lot can change in a year. By December 2015 the New York Times masthead editor Philip B. Corbett explained the occasional use of the gender-neutral “courtesy title” Mx. in the publication, saying that it was not yet part of the style guide, but that “…[t]hings are changing fast in this area.” Dictionary.com added a definition for Mx. as part of a May 2015 update, along with other words related to gender identity including agender, bigender, and genderfluid. Additionally, updates to the entries for they, themselves, and their are currently underway and will be published later this year.

The linguists have voted, but will gender-neutral singular they actually catch on? As a pronoun for gender nonconforming individuals, they seems more poised to take off in a mainstream way over another option like ze, because they is already a part of all English speakers’ vocabularies. There’s less of a barrier to entry, especially with major publications like the Washington Post officially allowing its use as part of their style guide. As linguist Geoff Nunberg recently pointed out (no doubt with a twinkle in his eye): “everyone uses singular they, whether or not they realize it.”

Past winners of the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year include the hashtag #blacklivesmatter and the construction because X. Read about other nominations for the 2015 Word of the Year here.