Merriam-Webster added 533 words to its online dictionary on Tuesday, but what’s by far drawn the most attention is the company’s inclusion of “they” as a gender-nonspecific singular pronoun.
The addition comes on the heels of singer Sam Smith’s announcement last week that they are now using they/them pronouns. “I understand there will be many mistakes and mis-gendering, but all I ask is you please, please try,” Smith wrote on Instagram, seemingly bracing themself for a less-than-warm reception (unsurprisingly, given the level of hostility and violence that is still directed at trans and nonbinary individuals around the world).
While many embraced Smith’s pronoun change, others did not; likewise, some self-appointed grammar police have taken Merriam-Webster to task for including “they” as a nonbinary pronoun. The dictionary company methodically shut down grammar critiques on its website, explaining that “they” has been in use as a singular pronoun “since the late 1300s.” Merriam-Webster doesn’t castigate opponents of the “they” inclusion, acknowledging that adjusting to new terminology “may feel a little weird” before providing a brief history of nonbinary pronouns (or lack thereof):
There have always been people who didn’t conform to an expected gender expression, or who seemed to be neither male nor female. But we’ve struggled to find the right language to describe these people—and in particular, the right pronouns. In the 17th century, English laws concerning inheritance sometimes referred to people who didn’t fit a gender binary using the pronoun “it,” which, while dehumanizing, was conceived of as being the most grammatically fit answer to gendered pronouns around then. Adopting the already-singular “they” is vastly preferable. It’s not quite as newfangled as it seems: we have evidence in our files of the nonbinary “they” dating back to 1950, and it’s likely that there are earlier uses of the nonbinary pronoun “they” out there.
There you have it. So when someone picks a pronoun argument with you over Thanksgiving dinner, you officially have dictionary-approved evidence with which to shut them up.
Originally Appeared on Vogue