Merriam-Webster dictionary has added a new definition of ‘they’, declaring that the pronoun may be used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary. The use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun is as confusing as it is ungrammatical.

However, the article reports that many non-binary individuals who identify as genders other than male or female have found ‘they’ to be a very liberating pronoun as it does not shoehorn them into a particular gender.

The dictionary has announced that the gender-neutral pronoun have reached mainstream use and thus it has decided to include the singular ‘they’ for non-binary individuals. According to Merriam-Webster, dictionaries are not intended to set rules for how people should behave but merely generally indicate how language is being used at a particular time.


Read the full article on The Washington Post: Merriam-Webster adds non-binary pronoun ‘they’ to dictionary


The Merriam-Webster dictionary has acknowledged that some English speakers consider dictionaries to be constitutional and authoritative, i.e., that it is able to declare the propriety of the use of non-binary pronouns.

Regardless of one’s views about non-binary genders, can it be said that dictionaries only play an observational role in considering what language is being used? Or by its very inclusion in the dictionaries, is there some normative effect that the phenomenon, object or situation enjoys?

By seeing this new definition of ‘they’ in the dictionary, it is possible that users would accept the phenomenon of non-binary genders wholesale, without any further questioning simply because it has been enshrined in the dictionary. w

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. How should a dictionary decide on whether a new word should be included in its dictionary? Is it merely on the basis of popular usage?
  2. What is the impact of a dictionary including a new word or definition? Do you think it merely captures the popular usage of the word or does it have any declarative effect?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. ‘constitutional’: being in accordance with or authorised by the constitution of a state or society
  2. ‘propriety’: appropriateness; the quality or state of being proper or suitable