The American Dialect Society has announced their 2015 Word of the Year – ‘they’, used as a singular pronoun.
The award is a testament to the ever-shifting nature of the English language, capable of evolving and capturing a wider experience. The increasing usage of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun represents a shift away from gendered language of she and he and his and hers, allowing for a wider appreciation of gender as a spectrum.
The singular ‘they’ is not an altogether novel development, as Linguistics and Modern Languages student may note – though the motivation underlying its current popular usage has acquired new meaning. After all, De Worde’s ‘The Pilgrimage of Perfection’ (1531) is littered with the singular pronoun, as indeed are Samuel Richardson’s 1742 ‘Pamela’, Austen’s comedies and the entire Shakespearean corpus, though its appearances throughout are devoid of gender-evading intent.
English students interested in this discussion may want to explore Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, which figures language as a masculine tool and one ultimately constructed to ill-satisfy the needs of women (“the very form of the sentence does not fit her”).