Saturday, January 23, 2016

Word of the Year: "They"!

If you hadn't noticed, the American Dialect Society released their annual Word of the Year on January 8th. This year's winner was the singular "they".

I'm excited about this. The singular pronoun "he" used to refer to a single person of any gender has been out of favor for a long time. It belongs to a more gender biased era. Since then, writers and speakers alike have had to employ the clunky "he or she" pronoun pair or try to do things like alternate masculine and feminine pronouns. Too much mental gymnastics. Oh the perils of a language without a non-gendered third person pronoun appropriate for humans! Enter singular "they".

Singular "they" has long been used in common speech to refer to a single person when gender is either unknown or unspecified. Prescriptivist grammarians, however, have long stuck up their noses at the use of singular "they" in any form, but especially in writing. I know I have often simply advised students to use plural subjects as often possible, thereby avoiding both the wrath of overly prescriptive readers or hearers and the awkward "he or she" constructions. Could that time be coming to and end?

Will the American Dialect Society making singular "they" the Word of the Year suddenly lead to a widespread shift in opinion about singular "they". Absolutely not. Language change (and acceptance thereof) doesn't happen that quickly. The prescriptivist tradition will continue to maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future and perhaps beyond. Nevertheless, I can at least hope that this might accelerate the shift so that we can all enjoy the wonders of singular "they" in all areas of life.

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