Pronouns are tools that people typically use with all the thought one gives to using doorknobs. Students are taught in early language lessons that every sentence needs a subject and are given a short list of usual suspects: words like he, she, you and they. The latter, they are told, is used to refer to more than one person. Yet that’s not always the case. Merriam-Webster chose the singular form, one that has been gaining currency and causing controversy.
There are two reasons that singular they is on the upswing. One is that it’s a convenient way to refer to an unknown person in a gender-neutral way, versus using cumbersome constructions like “he or she.” In recent years, it has been far easier to find this generic they in mass media because using it makes life easier for readers and writers alike.
In 2015, Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh announced that his desk would start allowing this usage of they, explaining that it’s the best option in a language that famously lacks a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun: Using he seems sexist, using she seems patronizing and “alternating he and she is silly,” he wrote, “as are he/she, (s)he and attempts at made-up pronouns.” In 2017, no less an authority than the AP Stylebook also approved this usage “when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy.”
The other is that singular they is being used by individuals — who might identify as transgender, non-binary, agender, intersex or even cisgender — who don’t feel like a gendered pronoun fits. This usage of singular they can operate as a form of protest against some of the most fundamental ideas governing society today: namely, that every person can be identified as male or female in a clear-cut manner and that males and females should look and act and be referred to in certain ways. Modern terms like the honorific Mx. and the adjective Latinx have been taken up with similar flair.
Using singular they to refer to an unknown person is both better established in the language and less likely to lead to outrage on Twitter. Though some traditionalists wrinkle their noses at seeing the word themself in a newspaper article, this usage has been around for some 600 years, and people employ it every day in conversation. Kirby Conrod, a University of Washington linguist who studies pronoun usage, provides the example of dealing with bad drivers: It’s unlikely you’d slam your hand on the wheel and exclaim, “Did you see that? He or she cut me off!”
The newer usage of singular they to describe a known individual who is rejecting the yoke of other pronouns has been inching closer to the mainstream for years. In 2015, the American Dialect Society chose it as their word of the year, having seen how people were starting to use it to “[transcend] the gender binary.” In 2017, singer Jennifer Lopez made news when she used singular they on Instagram to refer to a younger family member. (TIME also ran a cover story on non-binary identities that year titled “Beyond He or She“.) And this year, singer Sam Smith announced on the same platform that “My pronouns are they/them.”
This version of singular they causes more consternation, grammatical and political.
While it’s natural for the usage of pronouns to evolve, just as all language evolves, students are taught that pronouns are the bedrock of language, and it can be discomfiting when the rules about how to use them start to shift. “When there are changes, it can feel much more fundamental,” explains linguist Ben Zimmer, “and that obviously leads to a lot of backlash.”
The backlash has come as singular they has become associated with new protocols that progressives have adopted at schools and conference check-in tables around the country. “What are your pronouns?” everyone is asked, the suggestion being that one should never assume another person’s gender, however obvious it might seem, in part because it is offensive to use words like him or her for individuals who use they and them. For some people, this all amounts to just one more example of hand-wringing liberals trying to control people’s behavior and speech.
Conrod, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they and them, sums up this objection as people feeling “the social justice police” are creating a world where one “can’t say anything.” In response, Conrod argues that everyone generally agrees that it is rude to misgender a cisgender person, like mistakenly saying “Thank you, ma’am” to a long-haired man, and believes this same attitude should extend to people like them, even if it means doing more work in social situations.
Others balk at using singular they to refer to people like Conrod on the grounds that it is linguistically confusing (e.g. does one say “they is” or “they are”?) or that it just sounds weird.
“If people have trouble now, it’s understandable,” Zimmer says, “because when we’re dealing with something as fundamental as a pronoun, changes like this might seem to go against people’s deeply held feelings about how language works.”
There is, however, historical precedent that proves this kind of evolution can take place. Centuries ago, the pronoun you was used only in a plural sense: Individuals were referred to as thee or thou. Gradually, people started to view you as the more polite way to refer to individuals as well. And there was similar confusion about whether to say “you is” or “you are.”
“There were a lot of animated arguments,” Zimmer explains. This was especially the case among Quakers who preferred thou and considered singular you to be an abomination uttered by those who “are out of the pure language.” In the end, the Quakers lost and English speakers embraced singular you, as well as the verb form that was already in use. Today people say “you are” when referring to singles and doubles alike, with minimal fuss. Using thou, meanwhile, would likely lead to some furrowed brows.
In research about the acceptance of different pronoun usage, Conrod has found that when it comes to people disliking singular they, there seems to be a breaking point around age 35: People of all ages are fairly accepting of using singular they to refer to an unknown person, but those over age 35 don’t like it when it’s used to refer to Mary or John.
Merriam-Webster’s selection of a word of the year is based on data showing that far more people than usual are looking up a particular term. Because of that, Conrod sees the anointment of singular they less as a sign that it has been widely accepted than a signal that more families are probably having arguments about the pronoun over their holiday meals.
“The language is always shifting and normally people aren’t aware of it,” Conrod says. “This time people seem really aware of it and have a lot of opinions.”