Merriam-Webster recently declared "they" a grammatically correct pronoun. (Image courtesy of Getty Images)


Opinion: Merriam-Webster’s decision to include ‘they’ as a grammatically correct pronoun is remarkable

A bit of somewhat ignored news amidst the insanity of the modern news cycle is an announcement made this week by Merriam-Webster dictionary. Merriam-Webster has recently made the decision to include “they” as a grammatically correct pronoun. The dictionary now says that, as well as the usual plural definition, that the word they can be…
<a href="" target="_self">Anna Holden</a>

Anna Holden

September 28, 2019

A bit of somewhat ignored news amidst the insanity of the modern news cycle is an announcement made this week by Merriam-Webster dictionary. Merriam-Webster has recently made the decision to include “they” as a grammatically correct pronoun.

The dictionary now says that, as well as the usual plural definition, that the word they can be used as a singular pronoun when it’s used in reference to a nonbinary person. This is an incredibly important stride for the LGBTQ community, as many nonbinary people are now having their chosen pronoun grammatically validated.

This feels like an acceptance that being nonbinary is not something that will fade with time, given that the dictionary will now include for countless generations the fact that “they” is a grammatically correct for singular use.

One of the main reasons why this is important is because grammar, especially in Latin-based languages, is complicated. English, however, stands out from the others because of its lack of a nongendered singular pronoun.

To be 100% grammatically accurate, a person has to be referred to as either male or female. This phenomenon, while ignored by newer generations, has made being nonbinary somewhat difficult.

Unlike such languages as Spanish or French, being nongendered within the confines of the English language is impossible. There really was no term for it, so “they” was used in a grammatically incorrect way for generations. Now, with the inclusion of this definition of “they” into the dictionary, nonbinary people can have the satisfaction of knowing what they call themselves is finally seen as correct.

Pronouns are a tricky thing, with a unique complication within the LGBTQ community. Most straight cis people don’t question whether to use she or he when thinking about themselves. It’s simply a matter of genetics. She or he is defined by the number of X chromosomes in your genome.

But for many people, it goes beyond the sex of your body. Gender has evolved from something you’re born with, becoming a mindset, the idea of knowing that you are male or female when your genes and physical body tell you differently.

Nonbinary goes even further, with the idea that maybe you aren’t male or female. “She” or “he” don’t define you in the way that they may define someone else. This brings a question that can be difficult to answer: are you nothing, or everything? Do these neither of these genders apply to you, or do they both?

Many people within the LGBTQ community, nonbinary or otherwise, have opinions about gender. The idea of not applying to a single gender or the standards that come with that gender is an interesting concept, an idea only recently being voiced in the mainstream.

Pronouns can give people the opportunity to be whatever they feel is true to them, or they can be used as a cage to rigidly define people in a way that contradicts who they are.

A group of friends using the correct pronouns can be a dream come true for many transgender people, but a schoolteacher constantly addressing a nonbinary person as ‘young lady’ despite continuous correction can feel suffocating and unfair.

Despite my best efforts, I’ll admit to a fair amount of misgendering people. Most people automatically assign gender to a person without much conscious thought; breaking through that initial assumption is hard, but so vital.

Calling a classmate you’ve known for a long time by a new name and pronoun is challenging, internalizing that the girl you knew is now a boy can be daunting. One thing that I have worked hard to internalize is that most nonbinary and transgender people are not switching genders.

They are that gender, and always have been. They are merely informing and correcting us. My classmate, my friend, has always been a boy, even if they didn’t know it, and I’m the only one who is changing.

I have found that the LGBTQ community is different than most other communities, mainly because of the first things you learn about someone is their sexual orientation and pronouns. It reminds me of how other communities introduce themselves; for instance, when you met Harry Potter fans, one of the first things to come up is your Hogwarts house.

But instead of “my name is Peter and I’m a Ravenclaw,” you get “my name is Peter and I’m asexual, I use he/him pronouns.” Few communities are quite like it, but the LGBTQ community connects to each other through these terms in a way that is meaningful and inclusive.

Words have a powerful place in society. Straight people, intentionally or not, have the mindset that they are “normal.” Gay young people may have the mindset that they are not normal. I like to think of straight people not as “normal” but as “more common.”

This is statistically true, since less than a third of the human population is not heterosexual and cisgender. Straight, cisgender people are simply more common.

Nine out of 10 romance movies will feature a straight couple, and, unless you live in predominantly gay community, most couples you see walking down the street will be straight. That makes them more common, not more normal. There is nothing abnormal about being LGBTQ, we just happen to be a minority.

Beyond the concept of normality, there is the importance of titles, words used to give a name to a certain group. Words like gay are broad, and often used to refer to the LGBT community as a whole.

More specific titles like lesbian, transgender, asexual and nonbinary can be used to help connect a person with more people who identify as they do at least in one aspect of their lives. The idea is a good one; a woman who is attracted to other women is a lesbian. A person with no sexual attraction is asexual. These words, when used properly, give people a sense of belonging.

The idea that there is a word for the feelings a person may have, for the kind of person you are because of those feelings, is enchanting. Knowing there are enough people out there like you that there is a whole word dedicated to it, is a great feeling.

This is what is happening with the new definition of “they” in Merriam Webster. There are enough nonbinary people that “they” has been completely redefined to give them something to call themselves.

That’s the beauty of this decision. Having something to call themselves, a pronoun officially sanctioned by the dictionary that lets them truly express who they are, helps include nonbinary people into the LGBTQ community’s longstanding tradition of acceptance through title. Well done Merriam Webster.