May 22, 2024

Merriam-Webster Says Word of the Year Is “They”—But Why?

Author: Jonny Lupsha, News Writer
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By Jonny Lupsha, News Writer

Merriam-Webster has declared “they” as its word of the year for 2019, AP News reported. The familiar word has sparked controversy due to its use as a third-gender pronoun. But what’s in a personal pronoun?

Magnifying glass on top of a dictionary with blue background.
Merriam-Webster has seen spikes in the number of look-ups on its search site for the pronoun “they” throughout 2019. Photo by Sergii Gnatiuk / Shutterstock

According to the AP article, the word “they” has seen a 313 percent search increase in 2019 as compared to 2018. The article continues on to say that the spikes in the number of look-ups on the company’s search site stems from the fact that “Merriam-Webster recently added a new definition to its online dictionary to reflect the use of ‘they’ as relating to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” Furthermore, the article says, the American Psychological Association recently “endorsed ‘they’ as a singular third-person pronoun in its latest style guide for scholarly writing.”

We’re all familiar with the use of the singular third-person pronoun when we’re told that someone from our bank called and we say, “What did they say?” But lately, the word “they” has gained notoriety as a preferred pronoun for people who are uncomfortable being referred to as “he” or “she,” leading to some controversy. However, this isn’t the first time a pronoun has ruffled some feathers.

From First to Third

“Pronouns can stand in for the person who is doing the talking—that would be the first-person, I or we,” said Dr. Anne Curzan, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. “It can also be for the other person in the discourse, the person [who] the speaker’s talking to. That would be the second-person, which would be you.”

But that’s not all. “Then you have the third-person, which is the people or things that we are talking about—that would be he, she, it, and they,” Dr. Curzan said.

At the same time, “they” has many uses. Dr. Curzan pointed out that “they” has been used as a singular pronoun before. “We’ve been using ‘they’ as a singular in these situations where we have a person of unspecified gender, unknown gender, irrelevant gender, for several hundred years,” she said. “You can find examples back into Middle English. Shakespeare does it, and almost all of us use singular ‘they’ today, at least in speech.”

The Case against “They”

These days, people often argue against the use of the word “they” as a singular pronoun standing in for “he” or “she,” but where does that come from?

“The rule that tells us that we should not use singular ‘they’ in writing, but that instead we should use singular generic ‘he,’ originates in the 18th century,” Dr. Curzan said. “It was first recorded in Anne Fisher’s grammar, and then it was picked up in Lindley Murray’s wildly popular grammar at the end of the 18th century. So for about 200 years, we lived with the rule that we should use generic ‘he.’”

Dr. Curzan explained that pushback on that rule began in the 1970s with second-wave feminism. Other options suggested were to use “he or she,” to alternate “he” and “she” per paragraph, to use “they” as a plural all the time, or to rewrite a sentence so it doesn’t need a pronoun at all.

Dr. Curzan noted that opposition to the singular use of the word “they” has dropped in recent years. So where does the proper answer lie?

“There is a debate going on right now on college campuses about whether, for example, on class enrollment forms, you should allow students to specify their pronoun of choice,” Dr. Curzan said. “I’ve been asked about this recently in terms of what do I think, and I have to say, to me, this comes down to an issue of respect. If people have a pronoun that they prefer, and they ask you to use that pronoun, it is a signal of respect to use the pronoun that people prefer, and as a result we create a more inclusive, respectful space.”

If nothing else, Merriam-Webster’s choice of word of the year certainly brings attention to this social, grammatical issue.

Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English

Dr. Anne Curzan contributed to this article. Dr. Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan.

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