'They', used in a singular sense, clinches Word of 2016 in linguist poll

Winning in a landslide vote, they took the title over 'on fleek' and 'yasss'

'They', used in a singular sense, clinches Word of 2016 in linguist poll


With the guts of 10 weeks left to go before we usher in 2017, the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting has just made an early grab for defining the ‘Word of the Year’ for 2016. The Washington DC gathering of more than 200 of the top linguists in America saw the pronoun ‘they’, used in a singular sense rather than its prescriptive plural, win in a landslide vote, beating off other contenders like ‘on fleek’ and ‘yasss’.

The singular they, which has crept into many style guides in English-language newspapers around the Anglophonic world, is already a regularly heard phenomenon in spoken word. As an example of its usage, the American Dialect Society suggested “Everyone wants their cat to succeed,” as opposed to the traditionally correct “Everyone wants his or her cat to succeed.”

But rather than the lexical laziness of avoiding the somewhat cumbersome his-or-her construction, ‘they’ claimed the accolade because of how it allows English speakers to avoid ascribing a binary gender to a person who may not wish to be referred to and he or she.

“We know about singular they already – we use it every day without thinking about it, so this is bringing it to the fore in a more conscious way, and also playing into emerging ideas about gender identity,” said Ben Zimmer, a linguist who writes a language column for the Wall Street Journal.

Presiding over the meeting, Zimmer added that the popular support for the singular they also served to show how the visibility and recognition of the trans and gender fluid communities has taken a forward in everyday conversations. “It encapsulates different trends that are going on in the language,” he said. “It’s a way of identifying something that’s going on in the language which ties to issues of gender identity and speaks to other ways that people are using language to express themselves and present their identity.”

Other terms in contention for the 2016 Word of the Year included: ‘schlong’, a verb meaning to defeat, ‘shade’, a noun meaning an insult or criticism delivered in a subtle or clever manner, and ‘af’, an intensifier added after an adjective.

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