Singular pronoun ‘they’ named word of decade by American linguists

‘When a basic part of speech like the pronoun becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention,’ says American Dialect Society

Sabrina Barr
Sunday 05 January 2020 14:51 GMT
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American linguists have named the singular pronoun “they” their word of the decade.

For the past 30 years, the American Dialect Society, which was founded more than 130 years ago, has selected words of the year that have become particularly prominent over the previous 12 months.

To mark the beginning of the new year, the organisation revealed both a word of the year for 2019 – “(my) pronouns” (used to share one’s set of personal pronouns, as in “pronouns: she/her”) – and a word to represent the past decade – the singular “they” pronoun.

The selections were announced by Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

“When a basic part of speech like pronouns becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention,” Mr Zimmer said.

“The selection of ‘(my) pronouns’ as word of the year speaks to how the personal expression of gender identity has become an increasing part of our shared discourse.

“That trend is also reflected in singular ‘they’ being chosen as word of the decade, with a growing recognition of the use of ‘they’ for those whose identities don’t conform to the binary of ‘he’ and ‘she’.”

In September 2019, Sam Smith announced their decision to use gender-neutral pronouns.

The singer, who identifies as non-binary, shared their news on Twitter, writing: “Today is a good day so here goes. I’ve decided to change my pronouns to THEY/THEM.

“After a lifetime of being at war with my gender I’ve decided to embrace myself for who I am, inside and out...”

The American Dialect Society is made up of members including linguists, lexicographers, grammarians, historians and students.

In addition to the word of the year and the word of the decade, the society also announced the winners and nominees for other word categories including political word of the year, slang word of the year and digital word of the year.

“Quid pro quo” was named political word of the year, in regard to the Donald Trump impeachment inquiry, while “hot girl summer” was nominated for slang word of the year, in reference to a song by rapper Megan Thee Stallion.

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