Two and a half years after Associated Press announced that it would recognize they as a singular pronoun, America’s oldest dictionary follows suit.
The Guardian states that Merriam-Webster formally added they as a grammatically right nonbinary pronoun to its online dictionary.
Merriam-Webster remarks in a blog post that people have been using they as a singular pronoun since the 1300s, citing a letter in 1881 in which Emily Dickinson refers to a person of unknown sex with the pronouns they, theirs, and even themself.
The article also states that the use of you as a singular pronoun was not always deemed grammatically right either: it was born out of necessity, won popularity in informal discussion, and eventually became formally adopted as a singular pronoun.
Merriam-Webster acknowledges that this fresh application varies from the way in which it was most frequently used by the general public in past decades.
In the past, the singular was referred to as “a person whose gender is not known or not relevant to the context.”
You might say, for instance, “Tell each person that they are responsible for cleaning up their own trash,” instead of “Tell each person that he or she is responsible for cleaning up his or her own trash.” Now we use they to describe a person who simply does not identify as either male or female.
It’s a much more direct use of the pronoun, and it’s this definition that Merriam-Webster adds to the existing dictionary for the word they: “Use to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.” And with that, “Don’t use they as a singular pronoun” has become nothing more than bad writing advice, much like “Don’t divide infinitives” and these other grammatical myths.