“They” have chosen the Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society’s word of the year is “they” as a singular pronoun.

This has been coming for a while. Standard grammar demands that “they” must be used with plural antecedents, such as this example: “Music lovers were saddened when they learned of David Bowie’s death.”

But when it comes to singular pronouns, there are only two choices: he or she. English lacks a gender neutral singular pronoun. For reasons I don’t know, but can probably guess, the default rule has been that where a sentence calls for singular pronoun describing a generic, unknown antecedent, the male pronoun is used: “Every voter must do what he can to become informed about the issues.”

That rule has been under attack for at least 20 years, leading to a variety of clunky alternatives, such as “he/she,” “he or she,” or “(s)he.”

In response to these unsatisfactory alternatives, writers have begun using “they” as a singular pronoun despite the fact such usage violates standard grammar. But as often happens with English, what began as a nonconventional usage has started gaining broad acceptance. The American Dialect Society’s award recognizes the emergence of “they” as an acceptable singular pronoun. Similarly, in 2015 The Washington Post style manual changed to allow using “they” as a singular pronoun. Most official style manuals still reject “they,” but there’s a pretty clear trend toward acceptance.

What should you do? The Scribe still prefers to avoid the problem by writing around the need for a singular pronoun that doesn’t describe a specific person. But where it’s unavoidable, “they” seems a preferable alternative to “s/he,” or “he/she.” If it’s good enough for The Washington Post, I can live with it.

And if you’re interested, other finalists for word of the year included “ammosexual,” “ghost” (as a verb, meaning to abruptly end communication), and “on fleek” (a term I admit to having never heard).

You can read about all of the awards here: http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they

1 Comment

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One response to ““They” have chosen the Word of the Year

  1. Stephen Deatherage

    Excellent post, Scribe!

    Stephen D.

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