‘They’ gaining traction as gender-neutral pronoun


Re: “Where are the gender-neutral pronouns?” letter, Oct. 2.

The letter-writer is correct that English lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun; however, her assertion that “they” is “inaccurate for an individual” is not quite right. She, and others, might be interested to know that the singular “they” is a topic much discussed among lexicographers and editors over the past year or so.

Two specific uses of the word are at issue: first, as a gender-neutral pronoun, to avoid awkward constructions (e.g., “he or she”) and sexist language (e.g., “he” as universal); and second, as a non-binary pronoun, to refer to a person who identifies as neither female nor male. The former — though it may seem ungrammatical — has been in use for centuries and is widely used in speech. The latter highlights the existence of more than two gender-identity options; that is, the pronouns “he” and “she” simply don’t cover everybody.

The singular “they” is gaining legitimacy. Merriam-Webster, American Heritage and other reputable dictionaries now include the definition. The Wall Street Journal has admitted it into its style guide. Indeed, it was named 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. English-speakers have proposed many gender-neutral pronouns since the eighteenth century, and all have failed to catch on.

It will take some getting used to, but “they” might be the best, most inclusive solution.

Alison Jacques



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