One of the last excuses transphobes have to misgender trans people is no more, as the Merriam-Webster announced on Tuesday it is adding a new definition for “they” to the dictionary, specifically referring to nonbinary people.
This isn’t the broad, nonspecific singular they that’s been around for hundreds of years, going as far back as William Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors. The singular usage is often used to refer to someone whose gender is unknown or in case when an individual prefers not to identify the gender of the person to whom they are referring.
However, a newly added fourth definition for “they” in Merriam Webster’s dictionary clarifies that it can also be “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”
Now self-appointed binary cops who claim, “I’m not transphobic, I just love grammar,” will have to let it go. The argument has become such a common refrain among cis people that it’s basically a meme at this point, but if those folks really love grammar — like they say — they should be happily embracing this change, right?
All language changes and grows, and English is a rapidly evolving language. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive, and changes based on how people use it.
This addition could have a wide-ranging impact on nonbinary people and others who use they/them pronouns. Not only is having the dictionary on your side a powerful rhetorical tool, but this could be used to give more legal legitimacy to nonbinary identities.
Much of society — from bathrooms to healthcare to prisons and the military — is sharply divided into binary sexes. As nonbinary Americans fight to have their identities recognized and protected, anything that helps to break down that rigid binary is good. The Merriam-Webster dictionary is an institution, and unfortunately, there are many who will respect its opinion over those of nonbinary people.
But even with these advances, a great deal of education must be done. When singer Sam Smith came out as using they/them pronouns last week, many news publications misgendered them when talking about it. As Out previously reported, the Associated Press violated its own guidelines to misgender the nonbinary performer.