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“They” Is Now Singular?

Recently, the American Dialect Society announced its word of the year: “they” as a singular pronoun.

“They” is usually plural, and the idea of it being singular has some grammarians objecting because, they insist, the singular form defies proper grammar.

Linguists tend to view language the same way classical liberals like Hayek view a robust and decentralized economy. 

I disagree. What is and isn’t proper grammar is always in flux — and is a great example of a spontaneous order akin to decentralized markets.

Don’t Forget to Rewind

The video industry is a good example. Netflix was founded in 1997, a time when people routinely rented VHS cassettes from video stores. Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings had a different idea; they wanted to create a mail-order DVD rental service (DVDs rather than tapes, because the discs were easier and less expensive to ship). They had a rough time early on; did people really need a mail-order video service? We now know that people did prefer mail-order video rental to the old way of doing things.

In 2010, Netflix revolutionized the video industry again by offering a stand-alone video streaming service. Would people really give up their familiar DVDs and Blu-Ray discs to stream their movies? Five years later, we know that the answer is a resounding yes.

This is the kind of story classical liberals love. We celebrate innovation and progress through decentralized markets. It is in our ideological DNA. Thinkers from the two Adams — Smith a…

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