Once upon a time – oh God, it was the ’60s! – the late but often brilliant comedian Godfrey Cambridge, used the immortal words “They are us!” as a brilliant comic punchline. Now, however, it’s absolutely correct to say, “They are me!” Here’s why:
by Beth Skwarecki
If somebody wants to refer to a person whose gender they do not know, or who doesn’t have a gender, they can use a certain very common English language pronoun. You know which one I mean. I just used it twice. Congratulations to they on being Merriam-Webster’s word of the year.
But we have to talk about something. There are some curmudgeons out there who claim that they cannot be a singular pronoun (it absolutely can), or who refuse to allow the concept of a non-binary person into their brain. These people are, in every possible sense, wrong.
I have received angry emails about this pronoun, just as the Merriam-Webster folks are currently fielding tweets from people who have decided to get up in arms about they ever referring to a person. This humble pronoun is newfangled and “PC,” somehow, they allege. (It is neither.)
It is true that many style guides and grammar books encourage the use of they only for groups of people, and clunky constructions like he or she for a single person. However, it is also true that people use singular they all the damn time, and it’s fine.
In the weeks after a particularly self-righteous old grump wrote to me to complain at length about my use of they in a Lifehacker post (“You are indeed part of our declining society,” they opined), I chuckled to myself every time I saw the word in a formal context or from a teacher or other authority figure. A note from preschool asked me to help my child with their craft project, for example. Anyone expecting to hear or read English without encountering a singular they will quickly find themselves disappointed….