Magazine February 10, 2020, Issue

On the New Uses of ‘They’

(Wikimedia Commons)
Sex and the singular pronoun

The folks at Merriam-Webster dictionaries named they as their 2019 word of the year, citing a dramatic increase in online lookups during the year. In some ways it was a strange choice. The word-of-the-year awards, given mostly by dictionary publishers and linguistic associations, usually go to recent neologisms that have become voguish. They is in a different category: It dates from Early Middle English in the 13th century, borrowed from Old Norse. Most of the uses that spurred its newfound notoriety date from the 1300s.

The “new” sense of they is as a singular pronoun. By a confluence of natural linguistic

This article appears as “Sex and the Singular Pronoun” in the February 10, 2020, print edition of National Review.

Bryan A. Garner — Mr. Garner is the author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing.

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