The online Merriam-Webster dictionary added a new definition of the word “they” noting that “the pronoun can be used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.”
Four definitions are given. The first two are not controversial.
1. those ones; those people, animals, or things, as in, “They dance well.” “What do they want to do?” “They aren't as popular as they once were.”
2. used to refer to people in a general way or to a group of people who are not specified, as in, “You know what they say.” “People can do what they want.” “They say the trial could go on for weeks.” “He's as lazy as they come.”
3. With the third definition the discussion becomes interesting. The third definition of “they” says that the pronoun is “… used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent.” Two examples are given: “No one has to go if they don't want to”; Everyone knew where they stood.”
I find myself using it that way. Instead of the cumbersome, “No one has to go if he or she doesn’t want to” one might say, as above, “No one has to go if they don't want to.”
This usage occurs in the 2011 New International Version (NIV) which replaces references of only men to references of both men and women. One example: In the 1984 NIV Mark 4:25 says, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” The 2011 version replaces the “he” and “him” with “they” and “them”: “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” In this rendition of Mark 4:25 “they,” clearly a plural pronoun, refers back to the singular “whoever. Grammatically it is incorrect, but it is common parlance.
4. But what are we to say about the fourth example that Merriam-Webster gives for “they?” [They] “…is used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.” The examples given are, “I knew certain things about … the person I was interviewing.… They had adopted their gender-neutral name a few years ago, when they began to consciously identify as non-binary — that is, neither male nor female. They were in their late 20s, working as an event planner, applying to graduate school.”
What are we to think of this? Are dictionaries only reflections of the current usage of language, or do they have an agenda? Do they only describe, or do they intend to prescribe, language? An entry will be included because of how a word is used in contemporary speech, but once included it becomes normative. Future generations will consult the meaning of the word not only to see how a word is used but how it shall be used.
From the experiences of Jordan Peterson and Lindsey Shepherd we know that there is a very strong push, at least in the universities, to force people to use certain pronouns, or invented pronouns, for those who self-identify with one of the scores of genders that, we are told exist. How long before the singular he/him, she/her are banned from conversation as the oppressive words of a tyrannical patriarchy and we are mandated to use only they/them regardless of whether we are referring to one person or to many, male or female? To use "they" according to its second usage, "They who control the language control the masses."