“They” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year
Advocates of non-binary gender equality, and grammar nerds, collectively rejoice. But what will the bots think?
1. “Every customer thinks they want one thing, but we discover what they actually need.”
Spot the errors in the sentence above? According to old-school grammar police, this sentence should be corrected to:
2. “Every customer thinks he or she wants one thing, but we discover what he or she actually needs.”
Until recently, the singular “they” was considered a no-go. But how annoyingly cumbersome is that second, although technically correct, sentence to read? Makes you want to flip the whole thing to avoid the singular use altogether:
3. “Customers think they want one thing, but we discover what they actually need.”
That feels better. Thanks, plural “customers” for helping streamline the sentence.
History Affects Language Affects History
Historical context shapes language. In today’s more gender-fluid world where people identifying as “they” rather than as “he” or “she” is increasingly normalized, grammar arbiters have to face it: It’s time to let go of our twentieth-century notions of binary gender identification and embrace the singular “they.” I mean, haven’t we writers (and English teachers for that matter) been longing for this day to come for eons anyway? Please, please don’t guess at how much red ink I once used, in a time when the word non-binary only applied to something vaguely mathematical in my naive mind, to correct clients’ sentences from the singular “they” to “he or she.” No seriously, just don’t.
And while I have carried much disdain for how the grammatically correct “him or her” has inconvenienced my job over the years, I also acknowledge that, for a time, its use was a triumph over previous eras. Consider that in more distant decades, women were not included in the conversation at all. A nineteenth-century sentence would surely read like this:
4. “Every customer thinks he wants one thing, but we discover what he actually needs.”
Progress my dear man! I mean, dear man or woman! I mean, dear person!
The Machine and Me: A Grammatical Love Story
What will language evolution look like tomorrow? I wager that the next linguistic frontier challenges how to incorporate AI and robots respectfully into our lexicon, including pronouns.
Will we soon ask, “Who are you speaking to?” when referring to an AI technology, even though today, the pronoun “who” is used exclusively in reference to humans? Even other animals are still assigned the moniker “it.” Or will we come up with new pronouns entirely to sensibly fold emerging technologies into our daily conversations? Give Alexa and Siri another couple of years in development and let me know how you start talking about them.
So, what does the next version of our grammar-as-a-reflection-of-the-sociopolitical-environment look like? Let the brainstorming begin, if not to avoid obvious eyesores like:
5. “Every customer thinks they or bot want one thing, but we discover what they or bot actually need.”
Uh oh. Back to where we started. Note to self — start working on a solve for the future, today. Come to think of it, I think I do refer to Alexa as “she” in my household. Wait, have I offended Alexa because I don’t say “they” instead?
Looks like the next frontier is already the new now frontier.
Read Merriam Webster Dictionary’s original post announcing “they” its Word of the Year.