ADS Word of the Year is singular "they"

« previous post | next post »

At the American Dialect Society annual meeting in Washington, D.C. (held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America), the 2015 Word of the Year selection has been made. The winner is they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. They was recognized by the society particularly for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by someone rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.

Check out the press release here and my full writeup for here. The WOTY vote also has received coverage from Time, the Washington Post, and Business Insider, among others.


  1. Mark Liberman said,

    January 8, 2016 @ 10:53 pm

    I can't resist pointing to Geoff Pullum's post of a dozen years ago, "They are a prophet", 10/21/2004. They were indeed.

  2. Ken said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 12:16 am

    The press release doesn't cover Mark's point – does singular they take is or are?

    For one data point, although I'm fine with singular they my brain growls at "When a person writes, they is called a writer."

  3. Jeremiah Megel said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 12:36 am

    How prevalent is the singular, gender-neutral "they" in AAVE? That seems like a variety in which "they is" might be more acceptable.

  4. Bob Ladd said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 3:11 am

    @Ken: Um, I don't think that was Mark's point. As it says in the post he linked to: "The sequence they are exhibits, of course, the syntactically correct plural verb agreement."

  5. Keith said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 3:27 am

    In my experience, singular "they" is ubiquitous among teenagers (my son and daughter and all their English-speaking friends), to the point of using it even when both the sex and gender of the subject of discussion is clear.

    I have even heard my daughter use phrases like "there was this boy in class, and they wouldn't stop talking, so the teacher sent them to see the head". I ask how many boys were sent to see the head, and the answer is "just one".

    This is not a conscious choice of refusing to use a "binary, gender-specific pronoun", because my daughter labelled the person in question by using the term "boy", rather than using a gender-neutral term like "kid", "pupil" or "person".

  6. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 4:36 am

    @ Keith

    No, that's right – for those of us with this form, it's not usually any more conscious than other grammatical decisions. It's not in most cases about making a political point, but can be licensed when the sex of the person referred to is not salient. There are constraints though – I doubt your daughter would say, "My friend Joe wouldn't stop talking, and they got sent to see the head", or "I told my dad about it, and they asked how many boys got sent to see the head."

  7. Chas Belov said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 5:04 am

    For me, "they are" but "themself"

  8. Yuval said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 7:34 am

    @Pflaumbaum: I don't know, that doesn't sound too far-fetched to me.

  9. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 7:44 am

    In which case would you say there is any position at all in which he / she is not replaceable with they for some speakers of standard English?

  10. GH said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 7:54 am

    How about a sentence where "he" or "she" is already used up front? "He wouldn't stop talking, and they got sent to see the head." (With "he" and "they" referring to the same person.)

  11. Lazar said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 9:53 am

    @Chas Belov: Indeed – perfectly analogous to the use of "you are" and "yourself".

  12. empty said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 11:33 am

    but not to "we are" and "ourselves"

  13. Guy said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 2:02 pm

    It's not just teenagers. I'm in my thirties and Keith's example and Pflaunbaum's restrictions both describe my own usage and seem to describe the usage of my peers in grade school when I first started paying attention to such uses. (San Francisco Bay Area, for those who want geographic data). In my experience even a lot of people who claim to despise singular "they" actually use it frequently at least in its "traditional" uses.

  14. Guy said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 2:03 pm


    I thought the royal we called for "ourself", have I been misinformed?

  15. Mark Meckes said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 9:34 pm

    I'm surprised not to have come across any mention, in this context, of French "on", which can replace almost any other personal pronoun, regardless of person or number, but always takes a third person singular verb form.

  16. John Chambers said,

    January 9, 2016 @ 10:56 pm

    In my native dialect (US northwest mostly), "ourself" and "ourselves" both sound right, depending on whether we're acting individually or as a group. Similarly, "yourself" and "yourselves" are both usable when talking to several people, to distinguish individual/group actions. The plural "they" seems to me to also go with "themself" and "themselves" to make the same distinction. But for all of them, "are" sounds right, while "is" is a bit odd.

    Thus, it sounds normal to me for someone to say "I want you all to work on this by yourself" to mean they should all work on it individually (and then maybe we'll compare their results). Substituting "them" and "themself" also sounds normal, and has the same meaning (except that the people probably aren't present and hearing the statement). Substituting "yourselves" and "themselves" also produces normal-sounding statements, but implies "Work on it together if you like, and don't bother me with it until you're done."

    In any case, people seem to be emphasizing "they" as a way to ignore a person's sex, and missing the use of the "singular they" to refer to an indefinite number of people. I think that's actually how I use it mostly. One of the bugs in the English language is the requirement to specify single/plural counts, which is awkward when you don't know or care about the number. Yeah, there are phrasings like "one or more", but they're often sorta clumsy. We wiped out this problem with we phased out "thou/thee" and made "you" both singular and plural. We seem to be doing the same with "they" now, though we're not dropping "he" or "she" quite yet.

  17. thunk said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 2:22 am

    Nice choice for the Word of the Year.

    I think it's important not to conflate the two uses of singular they (covered at great length in the article and on Language Log previously)–the first is the widespread movement of using "they" to refer to indefinite subjects, very common among my generation and social group.

    The second is the use of singular they to refer to definite subjects, especially non-binary people, and that is the use Zimmer seems to have focused on most. To me though, it seems that that use is much more limited and not really widespread outside of queer or leftist groups (which I am a part of).

    I do know a few non-binary people, one of which I recently had a discussion about (with a third party), using the second version of singular "they". Using "they" as a definite pronoun felt somewhat awkward and ungrammatical, but not exceptionally so–I used it anyway out of respect and accuracy, which is the main motivation for the use of such neopronouns (even though the person in question does not really care which gendered 3pp are used to refer to them, last I heard).

    Even so, in my experience, definite singular "they" has been gaining more currency and is probably the least jarring neopronoun option for most (influenced by the indefinite use of they, most likely). I briefly attempted to use "xe/xir" in my school a couple of years ago–next to nobody could remember how to refer to me, so I stopped bothering with that set.

    [(myl) Good points. My impression, like yours, is that definite singular "they" is going mainstream, in a way that alternatives like "xe/xir" never have, and is likely to be continue to spread.

    Definite singular "you" took a century or so to become the norm — maybe in a few decades, he/she will be as marked as thou?]

  18. Theo Vosse said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 3:54 am

    The use of singular they is always defended (by scholars) with this kind of argument: "The use of singular they builds on centuries of usage, appearing in the work of writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen." But isn't that use limited to a representative of a group, not for an individual of unknown gender/sex? So why the argument?

  19. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 8:46 am

    As Geoff Pullum wrote here ten years ago, Shakespeare used singular they with singular "man" as antecedent.

    I have the impression that singular they stopped being a bugbear for Brits a long time ago and it's controversial only for Americans.

  20. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    January 10, 2016 @ 5:56 pm

    Theo Vosse: I think it can even be an individual, provided it's in some way an unspecified individual, as in 'There was someone at the door. They wanted…' What is odd is 'they' following a name or title ('When Chris/the mayor arrived, they said…').

    Coby Lubliner: Yes, for indefinite singular they; not so much when it's used for named or defined individuals.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 12:13 pm

    But how much longer will we have to wait for the taboo against "it" for an older-than-infant human being of unknown (or non-binary, or not salient in context) gender to be eroded?

  22. Gabe Burns said,

    January 11, 2016 @ 11:05 pm

    @J.W. Brewer
    Why should it? What purpose would personal "it" serve that singular "they" does not?

  23. Jack said,

    January 12, 2016 @ 11:41 pm

    The biggest issue for me, as an already lifelong regular user of the singular they, to use "they" with neither male nor female people, was how hard it was myself to use it over a deep-seated inclination to go with the gender I guessed for a person.

RSS feed for comments on this post