“They” Just Made the Dictionary

A big win for inclusivity.

British singer Sam Smith recently announced on Twitter that they are nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. Alberto Valdes/ ZUMA Press

On Tuesday, Merriam-Webster announced that it had added a nonbinary definition for the singular pronoun “they,” taking the dictionary out of the business of policing gender absolutes. 

This is not some radical break with the past. The Oxford English Dictionary locates a singular “they” way back in 1375, and lexicographer and former M-W editor Kory Stamper says Merriam-Webster is the “last major dictionary to cover the nonbinary use of ‘they.'” 

In some ways Merriam-Webster is merely acknowledging what was happening in the language outside of its pages. Just last week, singer Sam Smith announced that they are nonbinary, tweeting a photo that read “my pronouns are they/them.” “I hope you all can see me like I see myself now,” Smith continued in a series of tweets. “I am at no stage just yet to eloquently speak at length about what it means to be nonbinary but I can’t wait for the day that I am. So for now I just want to be VISIBLE and open.” 


Merriam-Webster defines the “they” pronoun as “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” They also provided an example of how to use the word:

I knew certain things about … the person I was interviewing.… They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as nonbinary — that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school.


Merriam-Webster’s move to add the they pronoun to their dictionary transcends basic grammar. While queer and trans folks have a long history of identifying outside of the gender binary and have been using genderless pronouns for decades and maybe longer, the wider American culture has been slow to catch up. Cis people have always used the dictionary as a tool to delegitimize the use of a singular “they,” an act of erasure masquerading as mere pedantry. Adding “they” brings to an end Merriam-Webster’s tenure as a sort of hired guard of the gender binary. Maybe it will push us in some small way toward a future where people don’t need institutional assent to be seen, heard, and believed. 


In 2014, before Donald Trump announced his run for president, we knew we had to do something different to address the fundamental challenge facing journalism: how hard-hitting reporting that can hold the powerful accountable can survive as the bottom falls out of the news business.

Being a nonprofit, we started planning The Moment for Mother Jones, a special campaign to raise $25 million for key investments to make Mother Jones the strongest watchdog it can be. Five years later, readers have stepped up and contributed an astonishing $23 million in gifts and future pledges. This is an incredible statement from the Mother Jones community in the face of huge threats—both economic and political—against the free press.

Read more about The Moment and see what we've been able to accomplish thanks to readers' incredible generosity so far, and please join them today. Your gift will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $500,000 total, during this critical moment for journalism.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.