they \ˈt͟hā\ (pronoun)
- Used to refer to people in a general way or to a group of people who are not specified
- Used to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed
- Used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary
They is a personal pronoun. Just how personal it is depends on the user, and might be the reason why Merriam-Webster picked it as the 2019 word of the year.
People looked up the word they more than four times as much as they did last year, according to the publishing company known for its dictionaries. It’s been in the news as well; Merriam-Webster cites congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, whose child is gender non-conforming and uses the pronoun, and singer Sam Smith, who is nonbinary and also uses the pronoun, as prominent figures who brought the pronoun into headlines.
“After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out,” Smith said in posts to his Twitter and Instagram accounts.
There is no gender-neutral singular pronoun in English, so they has been used in its place for more than 600 years, according to Merriam-Webster. It’s used to refer to one or more people whose gender is not specified, not revealed or nonbinary. That last use of the pronoun they was added to Merriam-Webster.com’s dictionary this past September, with the publishing company saying the use is well established in the English language.
The four-letter word reveals a greater shift in culture.
The American Psychological Association’s blog officially recommended that singular they be preferred in professional writing over “he or she” when the reference is to a person whose gender is unknown or to a person who prefers they. It’s shorter, for one thing. But it also reflects a greater acceptance of different forms of gender expression. It is more common to see they or them as a person’s preferred pronouns in Twitter bios, email signatures and conference name tags, as the publishing company says.
Runners up for word of the year were quid pro quo, impeach, crawdad, egregious, clemency, the, snitty, tergiversation, camp and exculpate.