Guest Opinion: Language is here to serve all of us. Merriam-Webster's word of the year shows that.

Benjamin Dreyer

When I first got into the copy-editing racket, back in the early 1990s, writers, and thus copy editors, were vigorously wrestling with the longstanding and essentially rote use of the pronoun "he" to refer to a person whose gender was, in the moment, either unknown or irrelevant, as, for instance, "Is it wise to feed your baby whenever he is hungry?"

The commonly held notion that this allegedly genderless "he" did the job just fine because the default person is a "he" and everyone else can just fall in line behind that had stirred resistance from some writers. For a while, they were leaning hard into the use of "he or she" (which over time uses up a lot of space and, more to the point, can become quickly tiresome), alternating "he" or "she" paragraph by paragraph (well-intentioned but clumsy) or sentence by sentence (dizzying), with the occasional foray into "s/he" (just plain unsightly).

Clever copy editors would do what they could to address the issue, pluralizing nouns as possible to lead gracefully into a "they" or (one of my preferred tricks) revising a bit of text to eliminate the need for a pronoun entirely.

Funnily enough, I rarely encountered a writer reaching for what we call "the singular 'they,'" as in, "Is it wise to feed your baby whenever they are hungry?" It simply wasn't - again, in my observation - done.

Well, now it's done, and often. The dictionary folk at Merriam-Webster last week named "they" as word of the year, and not simply in its singular sense - Merriam-Webster helpfully noted that the singular "they" has been "used for this purpose for over 600 years" - but also in its nonbinary sense, as a third-person pronoun used by people who are gender-nonconforming. The editors also noted that in 2019 "they" look-ups on the company's search site increased 313 percent over the year before.


The online responses I've observed in the wake of the Merriam-Webster anointing have run the gamut from but-of-course embrace to outraged rejection, with a lot of tactfully, earnestly expressed confusion occupying the middle ground.

The embracers are fine, then, where they are, and the outraged parties can carry on with their outrage with no assistance from me. It's to the confused folk in the middle that I, a word person by trade, would hope to offer some advice and perhaps even comfort.

Yes, this nonbinary "they" use can be, as new things are wont to be, confusing.

Yes, it's a new challenge in writing and editing to avert confusion as to whether the "they" in a particular sentence is one person or a few people. (FAQ: "Is it 'they are' or 'they is'?" It's "they are," one notes, just the way we use "you are" for both singular and multiple persons with no great confusion attendant.)

Yes, it's something to be puzzled over and wrestled with, whether for you it's an entirely abstract concept or something that hits closer to home, as a relative or friend of someone whose pronoun - I've tried to stop myself from referring to it as a preferred pronoun, which is a bit too close to having one's sexual orientation referred to, also, as a preference - is "they."

Which leads me to a story:

A few years ago, I gained a colleague who was introduced, in one of those divisional welcome-aboard memos, as "they." Well, I thought, this is going to be tricky. Perhaps feeling myself the old dog who had finally lost the ability to learn a new trick, I spent a good bit of time doing everything I could to shimmy around the thorny pronoun. I would refer to my colleague by my colleague's name, I would refer to my colleague as my colleague, I would tie myself in knots until, one day, the word "they" popped out of my mouth and I thought, Thank heaven that's over.

From that point on, it was a relatively simple thing to do what I realized was, simply, the right thing. (Yes, I would on occasion misgender them, happily not to their face.)


If I had thought myself some kind of protector of language, I guess in this instance I would have finally asked myself, "From whom are you protecting it?" Moreover, an actual relationship with someone I immediately respected and increasingly, a bonus, liked - one can kick oneself all one wants at the thought that it shouldn't take a personal interaction to spark personal evolution, but for many of us frail humans it does - led me to an increasingly crystalline conclusion:

Language is here to serve those of us, all of us, who use it, and when one's perhaps unconsidered thoughts as to what is correct run smack into the honor we owe another person, one can only hope that it's honor that wins out.

Dreyer is vice president, executive managing editor and copy chief, of Random House, and the author of " Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style ."
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