When we learn about grammar and writing in school, we’re told “X is right and Y is wrong.” Seldom does the teacher add “for now.” Kids aren’t warned that the rules they’re learning today could be upended sometime in the future, rendering the whole lesson a waste of time.
For example, it was once standard to insert two spaces between sentences. Period, space, space, begin new sentence. Turn in a paper with just one space between sentences and you’d get half a point taken off your grade. No more. Today, single spacing between sentences is standard in most writing styles, including academic writing.
Another example: Some decades ago, many experts considered it improper to use “nauseous” to mean that you’re feeling sick. That word, they insisted, was “nauseated.” Its cousin, “nauseous,” had a different meaning: sickness-inducing. So if you said you were nauseous, these traditionalists might rib you by saying you make others sick. No more. It’s now standard to use “I’m nauseous” when you don’t feel well.
Anyone who was taught these rules but who wasn’t taught that language is constantly changing might, understandably, be a little angry. This is unhappy news. Anyone conveying it, for example your friendly local grammar columnist, can find herself directly in the line of fire — her email in-box brimming over with angry correspondence.
So it is with great trepidation that I report to you that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary has added nonbinary “they” to the dictionary. Don’t shoot the messenger and she’ll tell you what that means, why it happened and what it means for you.
Nonbinary “they” is different from singular “they,” which we’ve talked about here before (see above note about angry correspondence in a columnist’s in-box). Singular “they” has been in use for about 600 years as an alternative to “he or she” in instances where you don’t know the sex of the person being discussed. “No one will buy this product if they don’t know what it does.” In that sentence, “they” refers to a singular, but you don’t know if it’s a “he” or a “she.”
People object to this on the grounds that “they” should be plural, darn it. But it’s both plural and singular because six centuries of usage made it so.
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Nonbinary “they” is similar. The “nonbinary” part is a reference to individuals who don’t identify themselves as either male or female. The difference: Unlike singular “they,” which often refers to unknown or hypothetical individuals, nonbinary “they” can and often does refer to individuals whose identity is known but whose gender isn’t categorized as male or female.
In those cases, the word “they” is now dictionary-sanctioned. And if you think that’s an example of a dictionary pursuing an agenda, that’s not how dictionaries work. Lexicography, which is the process of making dictionaries, doesn’t dictate usage. It reflects it.
“All new words and meanings that we enter in our dictionaries meet three criteria: meaningful use, sustained use, and widespread use,” the editors write. “Nonbinary ‘they’ has a clear meaning; it's found in published text, in transcripts, and in general discourse; and its use has been steadily growing over the past decades. English speakers are encountering nonbinary ‘they’ in social media profiles and in the pronoun stickers applied to conference badges. There's no doubt that it is an established member of the English language, which means that it belongs in Merriam-Webster's dictionaries.”
So how do you use it grammatically? Simple: pair it with a plural verb. “Chris is here. They are waiting in the living room.” Compare that to “They is waiting in the living room” and you can see why the plural verb is the way to go here.
This verb situation isn’t without precedent: “It's helpful to remember that the pronoun ‘you’ was initially plural,” Merriam’s editors write, “which is why it too takes the plural verb even when it's referring to a single person. ‘You are’ has, of course, been perfectly grammatical for centuries, even when the ‘you’ is an individual.”
In other words, this is just how language goes. And yes, this usage could fade over time, too. Either way, just remember: Don’t shoot the messenger.
(June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.)