Singular “they” wins Word of the Year

He She It THEY

“Singular “they”, the gender-neutral pronoun, has been named the Word of the Year by a crowd of over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.,” said the report in the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/01/08/donald-trump-may-win-this-years-word-of-the-year/).

It beat off stiff competition from “ammosexual”, apparently a term for someone who feels love or affection for firearms, and “on fleek” (the quality of being perfect/looking great), neither of which has come my way, and “thanks, Obama”, which I wouldn’t have thought counted atall since both words are in common usage.

While grammar nerds may deplore the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, they’re (OK, we’re) fighting a losing battle. I find it hard to use in written English, but I know I use it a lot when I speak. But it’s not just as a lazy way of saying “he or she” that it got the linguists’ vote. It has a bigger role than that to play.

As the Washington Post (who officially adopted the word into their style guide in 2015) says, not everyone wants to be known as male or female. There are a lot of transgender/transsexual, hermaphrodite and gender-fluid people who prefer not to be classified one way or the other. Germany now recognises the fact legally. Using “they” helps them by leaving gender open in the same way that “Ms” leaves a woman’s marital status open.

Linguist Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who presided over the voting, said, “We know about singular “they” already — we use it every day without thinking about it, so this is bringing it to the fore in a more conscious way, and also playing into emerging ideas about gender identity”.

Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained that the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun”. It’s not quite true that English has no gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun. We have “it” – but I can’t imagine anyone using it without intending to imply total contempt for the person in question. Most animal lovers won’t use it for animals, either, for the same reason.

The article also pointed out that we use the singular “they” all the time in speech. To many people, writing “he or she” feels clunky now. Undoubtedly there are moments when the phrase is appropriate; certainly there are times when gender-specific words are required. But singular “they” is so common now that I can see the day when even “Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells” won’t choke over his or her (oh, what the heck – make that “their”) cornflakes on reading it.

What are your thoughts? Do you love it, loathe it, or not even notice it? Or perhaps you hate it in print but happily accept it in speech? Do you find it hard, as I do, to write it, but use it without thinking in conversation?

Let me know!

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