In Brief

Who's 'they'? The rise of the gender-neutral singular pronoun

New expressions of identity generate a deal of great deal of discussion

wd-gender_identity.jpg

In its 26th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society (ADS) has plumped for the word "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

The choice has thrown light on the English language's lack of such a pronoun other than "it". Convention has it that using "they" as a singular form of address is grammatically incorrect.

"If the English language had been properly organised… there would be a word which meant both he and she," AA Milne once wrote.

The ADS drew attention to the word's use for people who identify as "non-binary" in gender, something increasingly accepted by editors and linguists.

"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," said Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

So is "they" the answer to Milne's problem?

Where else is the term commonly used?

The Washington Post recently accepted "they" as a singular pronoun in its style guides, with copy editor Bill Walsh describing it as "the only sensible solution to English's lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun".

Facebook has also taken to using "they" in its notifications system, asking users to "send them good thoughts" when it is a friend's birthday.

"Even at the conference of copy editors, people who might be expected to go to the grave defending 'they' only in the plural, there seemed to be a surprising acceptance," says the Columbia Journal Review.

Could 'they' help end discrimination?

The use of "they" is not just beneficial to those who identify as non-binary, says Lynn Liben, a psychologist at Penn State, who studied the use of "his" and "her" by teachers and found children adopted more intense stereotypes about what boys and girls are supposed to do and become less likely to play with children of a different gender during breaks.

Jill Soloway, the creator of the Amazon series Transparent, told the New Yorker she sees the pronoun as a corrective to the effects of gender-coded language on children. "The promise of this revolution is not having to say: men do this, women do this," she says.

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