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On the 2019 Word of the Year: They

December 15, 2019

(image via wikimedia)

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word they is 2019’s Word of the Year.  At first glance, they might seem like a stupid choice.  The word they has been around for generations as a third-person plural pronoun.  Yet, curiosity over the word they has skyrocketed this year, with a 300% increase in hits on 2019 the dictionary’s website.

One reason for the Interest In they is that they is now considered a gender-neutral pronoun.  People who don’t want to be labeled as he or she can choose they as their pronoun of choice.  I’ll admit, I don’t get the whole nonbinary or gender neutral thing, so I won’t judge that, but I have a strong opinion about the word they.  I don’t think they should be messed with, and here’s why.

It’s pretty simple.  They is a commonly-used plural pronoun and shouldn’t be used in the singular form because it messes up subject-verb agreement.  All my life I was taught to use present-tense verb forms in sentences like “They are going to the movie.”

If people use they as a singular pronoun, then a writer/speaker referring to a person who identifies as gender-neutral will write/speak “They is going to the movie.”

That’s going to lead to a lot of confusion, especially among English teachers.  Grammar NAZIs will flip out too.  Regular NAZIs don’t have a high tolerance for people who claim to be gender-neutral (I don’t know any regular NAZIs, so I’m just speculating about that), but the grammar NAZIs (who are often very tolerant about alternative lifestyles) will also resent the change in language.

Merriam-Webster should know this.  When I was a kid, dictionaries reluctantly accepted any changes in the English Language.  We tried to make up words and rule changes all the time, and the dictionary (and our teachers) would never go along with it.  If we had tried to change the meaning of they, we would have been held back a grade, humiliated in front of our peers, and beaten up after school.

I’m not saying we should go back to that.  I don’t wish that on anybody.  But now the dictionary seems to be accepting change without thinking about the consequences.

Subject-verb agreement is the foundation of sentence structure in the English.  If you mess with it, everything else collapses.  Language fractures, people can’t communicate, and then people start genociding each other (Yeah, genocide probably isn’t a verb, but you know what I mean. If a person who claims to be gender-neutral can make they singular, then I can turn genocide into a verb).

The most disappointing part of this is that the dictionary should know better.  Young people have always had stupid ideas, many of which were worse than using they as a singular pronoun.  Young people are supposed to have new (and usually stupid) ideas.  The older generations are then supposed to postpone the implementation of those bad ideas until the young people get old  enough to realize how stupid their old ideas were.

In this case, Merriam-Webster has abdicated its responsibility as the wise (but cranky) mentor.  Instead, the dictionary has encouraged confusion and future madness by enabling youngsters to use they as a singular pronoun.

This conflict isn’t even necessary.  Most people don’t care if somebody identifies as gender-neutral.  There are countless potential letter combinations that could be used as a gender neutral pronoun, preferably one that hasn’t already been established as a third-person plural pronoun, like they has been.  There is enough confusion in this world already.

And we don’t need dictionaries to make things worse.

5 Comments
  1. As a young person who also doesn’t judge, I wholeheartedly agree. I thing they ought to find and use a better pronoun (hell, invent one if necessary), and keep ‘they’ for what it is meant for! That being said, I don’t have any alternatives to offer.

    • I thought there was already a singular gender neutral pronoun that people could use, but maybe nobody liked it. Or maybe nobody looked it up in the dictionary, and that’s why the dictionary doesn’t know about it… or simply doesn’t mention it.

  2. I had some problems with this post. I’m not really into messy public discussions and I’d prefer to speak about my issues with it in private via DM or email. I’m not trying to pull a fast one, I just don’t like unnecessary drama.

  3. If one uses they should he/she/it also use them?

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