The Definition Of 'They'

Sep 22, 2019
Originally published on September 22, 2019 2:37 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have another story now about the power of words. Lovers of English class and Scrabble, this is the moment you've been waiting for. This is the week Merriam-Webster added more than 500 new words, phrases and abbreviations to their dictionary. You can now look up Bechdel test, free solo, vacay and sesh. But we want to focus on one added definition for one very common pronoun because it is sparking some debate. The word is they. Emily Brewster, a senior editor at Merriam-Webster, explains.

EMILY BREWSTER: It is used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.

MARTIN: Non-binary meaning they don't identify as male or female. They and many other English speakers have been using they like this for years. Here, Emily Brewster will use it in a sentence.

BREWSTER: Here is my friend J. They will be joining us for dinner. The they is referring to this individual who is standing right here.

MARTIN: Now, there's been criticism of this usage - some by those who don't understand why someone might identify as non-binary but also by those who are put off by this change in grammar. They - the critics - say it's confusing to hear they are in a sentence if the speaker is only referring to one person. But our word expert disagrees. Brewster says we already do this with another pronoun.

BREWSTER: The word you was originally a plural pronoun, and in the 14th century, it started to slide toward this use of being both plural and singular. And so when I am speaking to you, an individual, a single person, I say you are. I don't say you is. The you are is grammatical.

MARTIN: Emily Brewster is used to defending new definitions and words against naysayers.

BREWSTER: People also don't like that we entered inspo for inspiration. Change is hard for people. We all know that (laughter). And some changes are harder than others.

MARTIN: Especially when these changes are seen as a political statement. Emily Brewster insists that it is not. She's done the research and the evidence, she says, is clear.

BREWSTER: It is used in published, edited text. It appears in social media. It is all over the Internet.

MARTIN: She also says it's used in personal conversations. So for Merriam-Webster to ignore it would mean they aren't doing their job. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.