English evolves: “they”

At the end of every calendar year, popular English dictionaries each pick a “Word of the Year”. In 2019, Oxford’s was “climate emergency”, and Cambridge’s was “upcycling”. Merriam-Webster, a dictionary based in the US, picked “they”.

Why “they”?

As you learned in English class, “they” is usually used as a plural pronoun, for example:

>  I didn’t see Sam and Janine. They didn’t attend the conference. <

English generally uses “he” or “she” as singular pronouns. But this practice is a bit problematic because the words aren’t gender neutral. What if someone identifies as the other gender (male/female), or neither of the two? What if you don’t know if a person is male or female?

That’s where “they” enters the picture. Using “they” as a singular pronoun means you don’t have to assign a gender.

Some people also prefer to be called “they/them” instead of “he/him” or “she/her”.

This evolution is a bit similar to a change in formal letter and email greetings that took place years ago. For example, rather than writing Ms./Mr., you might see “Dear Sam Thompson” — with both first and last names and no title — in the greeting. Although it might feel impersonal, it’s gender neutral, with no risk of writing the wrong thing.

You might not see a singular “they” in your business correspondence this week, but don’t be surprised if you see it sometime soon.

Mindy Ehrhart Krull
About the author

Originally from the US, Mindy Ehrhart Krull holds a master's degree in journalism and has been teaching English and working as an author, editor and proofreader in Germany since 2008.

At DELS, she leads a team of several English trainers and language professionals.

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