Merriam-Webster shared that searches for the pronoun increased 313% over the past year. The dictionary’s announcement reads, “It reflects a surprising fact: even a basic term — a personal pronoun — can rise to the top of our data. Although our lookups are often driven by events in the news, the dictionary is also a primary resource for information about language itself, and the shifting use of they has been the subject of increasing study and commentary in recent years.”
“They” has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun for over 600 years, Merriam-Webster explains. But in recent years, it’s also been used specifically as a pronoun for non-binary individuals. In September, Merriam-Webster added a new definition for “they”: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.” Before this, Merriam-Webster had included a singular “they” pronoun — but the definition stated that it was used for “an unknown or unspecified person” or “a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed.”
According to CNN, searches for “they” spiked several times throughout the year, including when non-binary model Oslo Grace walked in Paris Fashion Week; when U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal gave a speech about her gender-nonconforming child, who uses they/them pronouns; when singer Sam Smith came out as non-binary and, later, shared they'd begun using they/them pronouns; and during Pride Month in June.
In a statement, Merriam-Webster senior editor Emily Brewster said, “Pronouns are among the language's most commonly used words, and like other common words (think go, do, and have) they tend to be mostly ignored by dictionary users. But over the past year or so, as people have increasingly encountered the non-binary use, we've seen searches for 'they' grow dramatically… People were clearly encountering this new use and turning to the dictionary for clarity and for usage guidance.”
So the next time someone insists that "'they' isn't grammatically correct!" just send them to Merriam-Webster.