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She? Ze? They? What’s In a Gender Pronoun

pronouns

WASHINGTON — What happens when 334 linguists, lexicographers, grammarians and etymologists gather in a stuffy lecture hall on a Friday night to debate the lexical trends of the year?

They become the unlikely heroes of the new gender revolution.

That’s what happened here earlier this month anyway, at a downtown Marriott, where members of the 127-year-old American Dialect Society anointed “they,” the singular, gender-neutral pronoun, the 2015 Word of the Year. As in: “They and I went to the store,” where they is used for a person who does not identify as male or female, or they is a filler pronoun in a situation where a person’s gender identity is unknown.

“Function words don’t get enough love,” a man argued from the floor. (Function words, I would later learn, are words that have little lexical meaning but serve to connect other words — or “the basic building blocks in language,” according to Ben Zimmer, the event’s M.C.)

“We need to accept ‘they,’ and we need to do it now,” shouted another linguist, hidden behind the crowds.“As a gender neutral pronoun, ‘they’ has been useful for a long time,” said Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan. ( “They” can be found in the works of literary greats like Chaucer and Jane Austen.) “But I think we’ve seen a lot of attention this year to people who are identifying out of the gender binary.”

Read More: JESSICA BENNETT

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