Merriam-Webster has added a new definition of the word “they” to its dictionary, declaring that the pronoun may be used to refer to a “single person whose gender identity is non-binary.”
“They” is now used as a pronoun by many non-binary people who identify as genders other than male or female. But for many English-speaking people, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun can be grammatically wrong and therefore confusing. With Merriam-Webster’s announcement, however, made on Twitter on Tuesday, an official stamp of approval is being made on the term that is increasingly used by those with non-binary identities.
In a blog post written before the announcement, Merriam-Webster noted that “they” has been used as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s, adding that “and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular they in casual conversation and often in formal writing.”
The singular “they,” the blod post stated, is “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.”
Merriam-Webster’s blog post similarly stated that “there have always been people who didn’t conform to an expected gender expression, or who seemed to be neither male nor female. But we’ve struggled to find the right language to describe these people—and in particular, the right pronouns.”
The new definition of “they” is among 530 new words added to Merriam-Webster dictionary. Other words include “deep state,” “dad joke” and “free solo.”
Merriam-Webster’s move is not exactly groundbreaking.
Already, various journalism style guides allow gender-neutral pronouns. In 2017, for instance, the Associated Press announced that it would permit journalists to use the singular “they” in limited cases. Meanwhile, Washington Post has recognized the new pronouns since 2015.