The significance of ‘they’ as Merriam-Webster’s word of the year

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Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition with open book and bookshelf. Credit: Merriam-Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Every year, Merriam-Webster chooses one word that defines the year in culture. For 2019, the dictionary chose “they” (2018 was “justice” and 2017 was “feminism”). “They” received lots more Google searches than it did last year. Merriam-Webster updated the word’s definition this year to include its use as a nonbinary pronoun. 

Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief at Random House and author of “Dreyer’s English,” is pleased with the choice. “One of the things that I've always appreciated about the Merriam-Webster people … is that they really do try to keep an eye on what's going on in the world. And sometimes they slyly comment on it. But in this particular case, I thought they did a really great thing by choosing a word that is so important to the evolution of how we communicate with one another, and even how we look at one another, how we regard one another,” he says. 

Politics of “they” 

Is Merriam-Webster being political by choosing “they?” Many of the runner-up words for 2019 are related to impeachment (e.g., “quid pro quo,” “snitty”).  

“What they say reflects what people are are looking up. And so much of what people are looking up has to do with what's going on in Washington,” says Dreyer. “I mean, I was delighted to see that one of the runners up was exculpate.” 

It’s tricky to use “they”

Many people have had to wrestle with using “they” instead of “he” or “she.” Dreyer admits that he was sweating over it. “It's difficult. It's tricky. It's fraught. It's sensitive. I want to do the right thing. And I wanted to get it right,” he says. 

Dreyer says it’s been tough for him to use “they” as a singular because he wasn’t trained to do it that way. “I was trained to think that it was just sort of sloppy,” he says. 

Dreyer got into copy editing in the 1990s, and he says that writers were really trying to figure this out at the time. “There was a lot of ‘he or she.’ There was a vogue for alternating the use of the pronoun paragraph-by-paragraph, which can be a little dizzying. There was a brief use of ‘s/he,’ which is so visually unappealing,” he recalls.

Dreyer says the easiest workaround is to pluralize the noun. Example: “Students should be able to study whatever they want” instead of “a student should be able to study whatever he or she wants.” 

Another technique: rewrite the sentence so it doesn’t need a pronoun at all. 

However, when you're indeed referring to one person with "they," there's still a chance that someone will think you’re referring to a group.  

“It can be confusing, and it can be personally difficult. I recognize my own difficulty with it. When I gained my first colleague here who was nonbinary … and that colleague was introduced with the pronoun 'they,' it took me a while to get it through my head,” recalls Dreyer. “And I spent a number of weeks doing everything I could to only refer to my colleague as ‘my colleague’ or to refer to my colleague by my colleague's name. It was getting a little silly. And finally one day, the word ‘they’ popped out of my mouth. And truly I thought, ‘Oh thank God that's over.’”

However, Dreyer isn't pushing the use of “they.” He says, “I don't want to be one of those people who will jump up onto the stage and say, ‘Everybody get in line, and do this, and do it now, and it is easy, and it is uncomplicated, and get with the program.’ It is tricky. It is difficult. There can be some confusion when you are referring to one particular person as ‘they’ because we're used to ‘they’ as a plural pronoun. You just kinda have to address it and think about it.”

Should you tell people to refer to you as “they?”

“Every now and then, somebody will pop out online and say, ‘I want to be a ‘they’ not because I don't think that I'm a man, or I don't think that I’m a woman, but because it's the right thing to do, and it's the better thing to do.’ And I have to say that in most instances where I have seen those sorts of pronouncements, it has come across as rather glib and unhelpful,” Dreyer says. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson