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Merriam-Webster Pens Poetic Defense of Singular 'Their'


The dictionary released a limerick that sided with gender equality in language.


Merriam-Webster has endorsed the singular "their" in poetic form.

The dictionary's editors penned a series of "usage limericks," in order to help writers navigate common language errors -- and also to explain why some perceived faux pas are in fact proper English.

The singular "their" falls into the latter category, according to the limerick, which was posted to Merriam-Webster's Twitter account Wednesday.

An accompanying note to the poem provides a more detailed explanation for this rationale, which boils down to a modern concern with gender equality in language, as well as a long history of usage in the English language:

Some people still prefer to use his when referring to a person of unspecified or unknown gender ("Every worker does his best"). However, many have moved on to his or her -- a more inclusive, yet awkward phrase ("Every worker does his or her best"). Singular theirsolves this awkwardness ("Every worker does their best").

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 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; in recent years, the acceptance of gender-neutral third person pronouns such as their is growing.

Of course, the singular "their" is sometimes used by members of the LGBT community, such as transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming persons, who prefer gender-neutral terms as descriptors. Across the board, nonbinary pronouns are on the rise ("zie," "zim," "zir," "zirs," and "zirself" is another example), and it is becoming the standard in media, business, and personal life to ask for and respect preferred pronouns.

The poetic defense of the singular "their" was met with lyrical delight by some social media users, who interpreted it as a move toward acceptance. They responded in rhyming kind:

Other limericks released by Merriam-Webster parse the differences between often interchanged words like "amuse and bemuse" or address whether disputed terms like "irregardless" are "really a word." See the full list at

This is not the first time Merriam-Webster has tweeted liberal views. In 2017, the 150-year-old dictionary repeatedly trolled the Trump administration in response to its twisting of language. For example, it stood by the definition of "fact" after advisor Kellyanne Conway's coinage of "alternative facts." Its response to the president's mysterious "covfefe" tweet went viral. Its Twitter banner image reads #WordsMatter.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.