The singular pronoun "they" was named the American Dialect Society's 2015 Word of the Year on Friday (Jan. 8) and hopefully it means that at least one obnoxious and totally pretentious obstacle to the widely-used gender-neutral pronoun might (finally) be on its way out.
It's a grammar rule that might've been drilled into your skull in high school: A singular noun (i.e. one person) needs a singular pronoun (like he or she or one). It's an old, crunchy rule to many in grammatical circles and it can be the source of frustration for a lot of individuals (particularly gender-queer or gender non-conforming folks) who don't use any of those pronouns.
That's why an official recognition of the term and its usage is a big deal.
"In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Ben Zimmer, linguist and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal said in a press release from the American Dialect Society“While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”
Historically, the singular he/she/one pronouns haven't been strictly adhered to anyway -- with authors from across the literary canon (e.g. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Geoffery Chaucer) regularly using it in their works. In casual speech using "they" to refer to a single human is commonplace. The people who still hold on to this rule are often regarded as pedants (read: pretentious, nit-picking weenies).
"We know about singular they already — we use it everyday without thinking about it, so this is bringing it to the fore in a more conscious way, and also playing into emerging ideas about gender identity," Zimmer told The Washington Post. "...It encapsulates different trends that are going on in the language. It's a way of identifying something that's going on in the language which ties to issues of gender identity and speaks to other ways that people are using language to express themselves and present their identity."
This is totally a great move to further legitimize and draw attention to conversations about the power of pronouns. And, of course, as every true grammar fan knows: Language is a magical, breathing thing -- it can always evolve to keep up with the ways we all communicate.