Grammar

Dictionary Names Pronoun They as Word of Year

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The pronoun they received a great deal of attention in the past couple of years. It just received a bit more with a special honor at the end of 2019.

I don’t recall the last time a pronoun received “Word of the Year” honors. But Merriam-Webster named the pronoun they 2019’s Word of the Year. Those dictionary folk say lookups for they increased by 313% in 2019 over the previous year.

We’ve all heard about the fight for acceptance of the singular they as a valid pronoun for transgender individuals. It remains a controversial notion because, when written out, it confuses more than it clarifies.

While most people identify as one gender or the other, some do not. They identify as non-binary, among other terms, meaning they do not identify with a single gender.

It’s easy for those of us who identify as “either-or” to claim it’s impossible to identify any other way. I suspect if we could actually experience that perspective ourselves, we’d be a bit more forgiving.

But from a grammar perspective, there’s still a problem.

I’ve written about this issue before, but given the dictionary’s decision, I think it bears repeating.

Yes, the singular they has been around for a long, long time. People who advocate its use like to point out that even William Shakespeare made use of it.

And yes, it has been in use for a long, long time.

But for the most part, there was a critical difference in its use: it didn’t refer to a specific person.

Consider this sentence:

If an employee doesn’t submit a time sheet by noon, they will find their paycheck will be cut short.

They is a pronoun for an employee. That employee is not a specific person. In fact, since we’re talking about something that may or may not even happen, that employee is a hypothetical person.

Prior to people becoming more aware of the transgender movement, this sentence would have had one clear meaning:

James said they didn’t want to go to the party.

The they James was referring to was an unnamed group of people, two or more, who didn’t fancy the idea of a party. No one would think they would refer to James.

Now that we know that there might well be a James who identifies as non-binary, that’s now a possibility. Even people with names that are traditionally reserved to one gender or the other may not identify as that gender.

But that raises the possibility of a lot of confusion.

Even if we know this particular James wants to be referred to with them/their/they pronouns, the sentences don’t read well for the eye.

When we see, “James said they didn’t want to go to the party,” we process that differently than if we would have seen, “James said he didn’t want to go to the party.” Even if we know the pronoun he isn’t the right fit for James, they doesn’t fully compute, either.

While I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should ever ignore someone’s identity preference, the writer in me feels it’s also important to communicate clearly.

And using a singular they to refer to a specific, identifiable person doesn’t clearly communicate to some exactly what you’re trying to say.

The best alternative I see to avoid confusion is to rewrite to avoid the pronoun altogether. So the sentence might become:

James didn’t want to go to the party.

It accomplishes the same thing without disrespecting James’ pronoun choice or causing potential confusion for the reader.

I wish I could come up with an easier alternative. But it’s difficult to come up with one when you’re trying to accomplish respect and clarity.

1 Comment

  1. “They” seems to have become the preferred non-binary gender pronoun. I am a binary transgender woman, so I am definitely aware that being mis-gendered can hurt. After all, I have gone to a lot of trouble to be seen as the woman I am, and being referred to with “he/him/his” has, at the least, a negating effect. “They/them/their” would be preferable to me, only because of the neutrality – but I am not neutral. For those who are, though, I can understand how they would not want to be referenced with gendered pronouns. I’m not sure why they would want to possibly give up their individuality by adopting plural pronouns, however.

    If “they/them/their” is what we are agreeing to be gender-neutral pronouns, why not change the spelling to “thay/tham/thayr?” This could still cause some confusion when spoken, but it would eliminate the singular/plural problem when written. (I understand that “thayr” might be misused in writing, along with the often-misused “there, their, and they’re.”) 🙂

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 28 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.