The “new” singular they

You’ve seen the posts and tweets and articles, I know you have. Jane Austen. William Shakespeare. Literary greats for centuries (literally) have used the singular they.

So why are folks so bent out of shape about it? Why now?

Because this is a new singular they. It’s not the one Jane and Will used, referring to an unknown person. It’s used with a new purpose. It’s nongendered and refers to a known individual. Nonbinary individuals may choose it as their pronoun rather than the gendered “he” or “she” or the many options that have never really caught on (like “zie”).

It’s the difference between “Every student needs their own pencil” and “Robin needs their own pencil.” (I tweeted this exact example a couple of days ago.)

And along with this new singular they comes the matching reflexive pronoun: themself. Used for one person who is referred to as “they.” Think about it. “Themselves” makes no sense whatsoever in a singular context. “Themself” is sensible.

It hasn’t yet made it into the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, but here’s the page at American Heritage Dictionary’s site. Take note that the second entry is labeled “nonstandard” and that it uses this word to refer to more than one individual. The main entry is not labeled.

We’re getting there. Happy Pride Month 2019, folks.

What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view

I’m not a lexicographer, but I know several from Twitter. That’s my disclaimer. What I’m writing here is taken from English-language dictionaries themselves (did you know the print versions usually include a “how to use this book” section?), personal experience, and Twitter discussions.

Dictionaries do not dictate how you are allowed to use a word. They do, however, tell you how words are used. Do you see the difference? They’re showing you a snapshot, in essence, of the English language at a moment in time. The definitions change with the language, but not as quickly as language changes. For a word to enter a dictionary, or for its definition to change, that word must appear in print in places where the lexicographers can cite it. That can be news media, fiction, nonfiction, periodicals, personal correspondence made public, transcripts of speech, websites, and so on. Continue reading “What a dictionary is and isn’t, from this editor’s point of view”