The dictionary publisher broke down the term as one of its quirky “usage limericks” this week. The site’s editors have been producing the popular poems, intended to help writers avoid language and grammatical errors, for some time.
The use of the singular “their,” Merriam-Webster noted on Twitter Wednesday, seems like a grammatical error, but is in fact appropriate.
The tweet included a link, which elaborated further.
“There is a long tradition in English of using plural pronouns (such as ‘they,’ ‘their,’ or ‘them’) for a singular character, rather than ascribing gender in a seemingly indeterminate fashion,” the site notes. “The habit of always using ‘he,’ ‘him,’ or ‘his’ began to be strongly advocated for after 18th century grammarians decided that indefinite pronouns should be singular.”
The editors conclude: “In recent years, the acceptance of gender-neutral third person pronouns such as ‘their’ is growing.”
Some people on Twitter responded gleefully to the dictionary’s embrace of “their,” and even offered their own poetic takes.
Merriam-Webster has, of course, taken an increasingly progressive stance on Twitter as of late.
Last year, the dictionary added the definition of “shade” as it was popularly used in the queer black and Latino ballroom scene: To express contempt or disrespect for someone publicly especially by subtle or indirect insults or criticisms. (Thanks to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and the “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” this use has become increasingly mainstream.)
The company’s 2017 word of the year was “feminism.” Editors noted that “feminism” was chosen because the term had enjoyed multiple lookup spikes as well as a 70 percent rise in searches from 2016.