Sorry, grammarian traditionalists: The singular “they” is not only acceptable but has been chosen Word of the Year for 2015.
Its usage has been a source of contention since the times of Shakespeare and Chaucer — both of whom, for your Grade 3 teacher’s information, used “they” to refer to a single person on occasion.
Puritanical grammar nerds have been sticklers, however, for pairing singular subjects (for example, “the suspect”) with singular pronouns (“he” or “she”) — even when the person’s gender is not known. The rationale is that “they” should only refer to multiple persons, not just one.
So traditionalists would rather see this:
“Everyone took his or her chances on the roads that day.”
“Everyone took their chances on the roads that day.”
That’s started to change, slowly: The Washington Post, for example, changed its style guide last year to accept a singular “they.”
But this kind of “they” got a thumbs up from some of the nerdiest word nerds Friday evening, when an overwhelming majority of the American Dialect Society cast their annual words of the year ballots for:
“they: gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, particularly as a nonbinary identifier.”
Earning 187 of 334 votes, it beat out:
Mignon Fogarty, host of the popular Grammar Girl podcast, told Global News she’s delighted by the news.
“I’ve been a fan of the singular ‘they’ for years,” Fogarty said.
She has previously advised writers not to use the singular “they” because so many people think it’s wrong, even though she predicted in late 2011 that it would someday be an acceptable choice.
“English has a hole because we have no singular pronoun without gender that we can use when we don’t know whether we are writing about a man or a woman,” Fogarty said.
“Our increasing awareness of transgender people makes that language gap even more prominent. People already often use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun in speech because it fills the pronoun gap, so it makes sense to use it in writing too.”
WATCH: English teacher Lorraine Herbst talks about the most common grammar errors.
The American Dialect Society’s Ben Zimmer, who’s also executive editor of Vocabulary.com and a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal, said expressions of gender identity played a role in the singular “they” conversation over the past year.
“I imagine that one day it will become fully standard,” Fogarty said . “For now, it’s still somewhat controversial, but happily gaining acceptance.”
Fun fact from the American Dialect Society: “Before the year 1000, there was no she in English; just heo, which singular females had to share with plurals of all genders because it meant they as well. In the twelfth century, however, she appeared, and she has been with us ever since.”
The 127-year-old society is made up of linguists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, students, independent scholars, lexicographers and etymologists. If you’re interested in joining their ranks, you can download an entry form here.
Here’s how the rest of their votes broke down. The number on the right corresponds to the number of votes the word or phrase received:
mic drop: definitive end to a discussion after making an impressive point. 2
microaggression: subtle form of racism or bias. 62
shade: insult, criticism or disrespect, shown in a subtle or clever manner. 11
* they: gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person, particularly as a nonbinary identifier. 214
zero f***s given, ZFG: indication of supreme indifference. 41
adult: (verb) behave like a grownup 71
* ammosexual: someone who loves firearms in a fetishistic manner. 153
lowkey: (adverb) to a small extent, in a subtle manner; opposite of highkey. 38
squad: one’s posse or close circle of friends. 3
yass, yaass, yaaass, etc.: expression of excitement, approval or strong agreement. 43
dadbod: the flabby physique of a typical dad. 16
* manbun: man’s hairstyle pulled up in a bun. 207
or nah: question tag expressing that something may not occur. 34
trigger warning: alert for potentially distressing material. 10
thanks, Obama: sarcastic expression in which a person pretends to blame Obama for a problem. 34
fish gape: posed expression with cheeks sucked in and lips slightly apart. 3
* f**kboy, f**kboi: derogatory term for a man who behaves objectionably or promiscuously. 127 / 173
schlong: (verb) defeat soundly. 93 / 148
sharewashing: deceptive marketing by companies treating services as “sharing.” 14
white student union: campus organization organized in response to a black student union. 27
MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
CRISPR: gene-editing technology allowing biologists to alter and control DNA sequences. 51
* ghost: (verb) abruptly end a relationship by cutting off communication, especially online. 223
mom: admiring term of address for a woman seen as a mother figure. 17
on fleek: put together, impeccable, well-arrayed. 23
LEAST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Berniementum: momentum behind the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. 59
hoverboard: self-balancing motorized skateboard. 82 / 106
* sitbit: device that rewards sedentary lifestyle (play on Fitbit fitness tracker). 102 / 191
Uber for X: pitch used by startups seeking to emulate Uber in different tech sectors. 33
MOST NOTABLE HASHTAG (new category)
#JeSuisParis: expression of solidarity after the Paris terror attacks. 6
#LoveWins: celebration of Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. 60
* #SayHerName: call to bring attention to violence against women of color. 178
#StayMadAbby: ridiculing plaintiff in Univ. of Texas affirmative action case. 17
#StayWoke: exhortation to remain vigilant and informed (used by #BlackLivesMatter movement). 59
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