As It Happens

Merriam-Webster editor explains why the dictionary added the non-binary pronoun 'they'

There's nothing ungrammatical about using singular they/them pronouns, says dictionary editor Emily Brewster.

People who identify as neither fully male nor female often use they/them singular pronouns

The non-binary pride flag is shown in this image. Merriam-Webster has added the non-binary pronoun 'they' to its dictionary. It's used to refer to folks who identify outside the male/female gender binary. (Cannibal3D/Shutterstock )


There's nothing ungrammatical about using singular they/them pronouns, says dictionary editor Emily Brewster.

Merriam-Webster announced Tuesday that it has added 530 new words, including an expanded definition of the word "they" to refer to "a single person whose gender identity is non-binary."

The move has been praised by LGBTQ organizations that say the inclusion of the gender-neutral pronoun removes barriers for people who identify outside the binary categories of male and female. 

But there's also been plenty of backlash to the decision. 

Brewster, senior editor at Merriam-Webster, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why the dictionary is embracing the singular, non-binary "they." Here is part of their conversation. 

Why did you want to add this particular use of "they" to the dictionary?

As a lexicographer, it's my job to help make sure that the established members of the English language enter into the dictionary. And there is no doubt that this non-binary use of "they" is a fully established member of the language just based on the evidence that we have of it in use.

It's a term that people have been talking about for a long time.

And they talk about it not just grammatically, but politically. But let's stick with the grammatical part first. Why are you including it as a pronoun that can be used in a singular way?

We have entered it as a singular pronoun for a long time. And use of "they" as a singular pronoun dates, in fact, to the late 1300s.

But in the course of that time, it has mostly been used in constructions where it's not really noticeable. So, for example, "No one has to use it if they don't want to."

Chaucer used it. It's in the King James version of the Bible. That use is very old and established. Grammatical sticklers have tended to object to it for about the past 200 years, but it's more and more frequently accepted.

But this non-binary "they" — [used] in a sentence like, "Here is my friend Jay; they are coming to dinner"— is a relatively new use.

We're not really sure how long it's been around, but it's certainly been increasing in frequency over the past couple decades.

You point out that the use of "you," we use that as singular and plural. ... You can't say "you is" like the way you say "He is." It's "you are."

That's right. Because "you" was originally only used in the plural. And so hundreds of years ago, English speakers had to adapt also.

"You" went from being a plural pronoun that took plural verbs to being a singular pronoun that continued to take its plural verb.

So no one claims that me saying to you, "You are speaking right now" is ungrammatical.

Similarly, I think that "they are" referring to a single person may very well be headed toward the same kind of unremarkable grammaticalness.

English Singer Sam Smith, seen here on Sept. 3, announced they are changing their gender pronouns to "they" and "them." (Henry Nicholls/Reuters )

So you're saying people who say this is un-grammatical, they're wrong. It's been used since forever. But now, on the political side of this, we are seeing — and we've had it on this program — the discussion about people saying, "No we can't have these non-gendered pronouns." Last week the singer Sam Smith tweeted about adopting these gender-neutral pronouns, they/them, and they had really significant pushback to those tweets. So are you getting the same kind of response to suggesting that this is an acceptable use of the language?

People are always uncomfortable with language change.

In 1961, when our Unabridged Dictionary was was released, it contained the word "finalize," which was deeply scandalous at the time. So language changes, and people are uncomfortable with change.

Things like "finalized" are not the same issue for the public as using language in a non-gendered way, which has a lot of pushback from those who believe that that's some kind of slippery slope, that they're afraid that the world is changing in a way they don't want to change. So you're ready to take on those arguments, then?

We really have no choice but to. We are more biologists than anything else in this kind work. Our duty is to record the established members of the language as they exist according to our evidence.

I think that maybe a better example than "finalized" would be the eventual full adoption of Ms. as an honorific. People were uncomfortable with Ms. for a long time, and now it's really not remarked upon.

I'm old enough to remember when Ms. came in and they weren't just uncomfortable, they were apoplectic. And so I tell that to people now that, you know, people thought that was the end of the world as we know it when Ms. came, and I think people use it quite comfortably now. So I guess it's headed for the same evolution, these non-binary pronouns?

I'm sure it will not be an instant instant acceptance by all the speakers of the language.

But what we see over and over again in the history of the English language, which is a thousand years long, is that change occurs and sometimes it is a structural change that gets to the very marrow of the language, and eventually the speakers adopt it and use it and it become, at some point, this kind of unremarkable feature that the language has.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Morgan Passi.