A Very Queer Word of the Year: The Singular “They”

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Bad news for people who have been arguing that the gender-neutral pronoun “they” doesn’t make any sense because it’s not grammatically correct: a crowd of over 200 linguists who met at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting last Friday evening have chosen the singular “They” as the most significant term or word in the past year in a landslide vote.


Using a singular they is common habit in English & American speech, as in “That cat loves their owner,” but has risen to prominence again as a useful way to refer to people who don’t use the pronouns “he” or “she.”

A practise several languages introduced over the last few years. Swedish speakers for example can use “hen” when the gender of a person is unknown or the classic pronouns don’t apply.

Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal who presided over the voting on Friday afternoon, said in a press release: “In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Zimmer said. “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.

Other contenders for the 2015 title of Word of the Year were “on fleek,” “ammosexual,” “ghost,” and “thanks Obama.” For a full list of the nominees and winners in each category, read the American Dialect Society’s press release here.

Comments 7

  1. It’s a pity they haven’t anything better to do. Who paid for them? Language engineering is part of social engineering. Somebody is trying to impose HIS will on someone else.

  2. re: The Singular “They”

    Never was I taught in English grammar that “they” was in any way, singular.

  3. Actually, is there a German equivalent? The only thing I can think of right now is “man”, but that´s not quite the same.

  4. they
    1. used to refer to two or more people or things previously mentioned or easily identified:
    “the two men could get life sentences if they are convicted”

    2. used to refer to a person of unspecified sex:
    “ask someone if they could help”

    Powered by Oxford Dictionaries · © Oxford University Press

  5. I draw the line at the Royal “We” – rank has its privileges – sorry if that offends ‘them.’

  6. The Germans can also get round it with the impersonal passive or just use the infinitive – Aufpassen! – but I don’t think that answers your question.

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