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Merriam-Webster Dictionary Adds ‘They’ As Nonbinary Pronoun

Cameron Frew


Merriam-Webster Dictionary Adds 'They' As Nonbinary Pronoun Sam SmithPA

Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary in the US, has officially recognised ‘they’ as a singular, nonbinary pronoun. 

Though the word, in its traditional form, is used as a plural, it has become increasingly used as a non-gender-specific pronoun, even in cases non-specific to how someone identifies.


It’s one of 533 words and additional definitions added to the online dictionary, in order to ‘address the complex ways we view ourselves and others and how we all fit in’.


Grammar Nazis will scoff, citing its original function as a plural pronoun – they really need to take a day off.

On its blog, Merriam-Webster wrote a preemptive post ahead of any possible backlash:


We will note that ‘they’ has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s; that the development of singular ‘they’ mirrors the development of the singular ‘you’ from the plural ‘you’, yet we don’t complain that singular ‘you’ is ungrammatical; and that regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular ‘they’ in casual conversation and often in formal writing.

This comes shortly after British singer-songwriter Sam Smith announced on Twitter they were changing their pronouns to ‘they/them’ as opposed to ‘he/him’.

In a chain of posts, Smith wrote on Twitter:


I’m so excited and privileged to be surrounded by people that support me in this decision but I’ve been very nervous about announcing this because I care too much about what people think but f*ck it!

I understand there will be many mistakes and misgendering but all I ask is you please please try. I hope you can see me like I see myself now. Thank you.

As Emily Brewster, a senior editor at the company, pointed out to The Guardian, this isn’t exactly a new linguistic development. ‘Over the past few decades, there has been so much evidence that this is a fully established use of ‘they’ in the English language,’ she said.

Sam Smith Asks To Be Referred To As 'They' Not 'He' After Non-Binary AnnouncementPA Images

‘They’ was also added to the Associated Press Stylebook in 2017, and 14 states across the US now offer a third gender option on driving licences. It’s commonplace now for websites requiring a profile and sign-on procedure to offer a multitude of gender options, including ‘prefer not to say’.


Gillian Branstetter, a media relations manager for the National Center for Transgender Equality, told The Guardian:

Overall you’re seeing workplaces, schools and hospitals recognize the current system of only offering ‘male’ and ‘female’ isn’t working for a lot of people.

If you are at a restaurant and you found a stranger’s phone at a table, you wouldn’t say, I found his or her phone. You would say, ‘I found their phone.’

In 2015, the American Dialect Society chose ‘they’ as its 2015 word of the year.

Another phrase added to the dictionary is ‘dad joke’ – defined as ‘a wholesome joke of the type said to be told by fathers with a punchline that is often an obvious or predictable pun or play on words and usually judged to be endearingly corny or unfunny.’

Sam Smith@samsmith/Instagram

For Brewster, the evolution of language owes a debt to the internet, which has allowed the world to experience linguistics ‘in its most informal iteration in writing’.

If you’re reading this and thinking its an oppression of grammar, or getting all riled up because you see it as unnecessary mollycoddling: you truly, and I cannot stress this enough, need to get a life.

Respect people – it’s their choice.

If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

Topics: News, LGBTQ+


Merriam-Webster and 1 other
  1. Merriam-Webster

    We Added New Words to the Dictionary for September 2019

  2. American Dialect Society

    2015 Word of the Year is singular “they”

Cameron Frew
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