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Cristan Williams

Merriam-Webster explains why “they” was added as a non-binary pronoun to dictionary

Today the Merriam-Webster announced the addition of the singular non-binary pronoun, they.


In an interview with the TransAdvocate, Merriam-Webster representative Emily A. Brewster said the following:

Evidence for they as it is used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as all over social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. There’s no doubt that it is an established member of the English language, which means that it belongs in Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries.

Nonbinary they takes a plural verb, despite its singular referent, which can make the grammatically conservative uncomfortable. It’s helpful to remember that the pronoun you was initially plural, which is why it too takes the plural verb even when it’s referring to a single person. “You are” has, of course, been perfectly grammatical for centuries.

The language’s lack of an exclusive gender-neutral pronoun is famous, and they has been quite ably filling in for more than 600 years. Its use largely goes unnoticed in such construction as “No one has to use it if they don’t want to,” and it’s quite possible that the nonbinary they is headed for a similarly unremarkable fate.

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Cristan Williams is a trans historian and pioneer in addressing the practical needs of underserved communities. She started the first trans homeless shelter in Texas and co-founded the first federally funded housing-first homeless program, pioneered affordable health care for trans people in the Houston area, won the right for trans people to change their gender on Texas ID prior to surgery, started numerous trans social service programs and founded the Transgender Center as well as the Transgender Archives. She has published short stories, academic chapters and papers, and numerous articles for both print and digital magazines. She received numerous awards for her advocacy and has presented at universities throughout the nation, served on several governmental committees and CBO boards, is the Editor of the TransAdvocate, and is a founding board member of the Transgender Foundation of America and the Bee Busy Wellness Center.

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