June 11, 2020
Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know
Confused about Gender- Neutral Pronouns? A lot of people are.
Check out this awesome article in ‘THEM’ magazine. The writer, Devin-Norelle, does a great job explaining them.
Sure, it can seem a little overwhelming at first. But with effort and a little practice, you’ll be a pro at ‘pro-nouns’ in no time!
Happy reading ..and learning.
It goes without saying that language is invaluable; how we express ourselves to others has a huge impact on how we see ourselves and construct our identities. Language is far from static, too — cultures change over time, and the words we use to refer and relate to each other also shift, adapting to encompass new concepts and ideas within society. The pronouns we use are no exception, and with the increased visibility of those who identify as nonbinary or use gender-neutral pronouns — including public figures like Sam Smith, Brigette Lundy-Paine, and others — you’ve likely met or heard of someone who goes by pronouns that aren’t “he” or “she.”
Gender-neutral pronouns aren’t a fad, and they aren’t new, either. Throughout the history of the English language, pronouns have evolved to adapt to the circumstances of the times. The plural “they” shifted to a singular “they” several centuries ago, when writers went in search of a more gender-neutral pronoun; multiple gender-neutral pronouns have come about since and been embraced by members of the trans and nonbinary communities. Third-person pronouns like “xe/xem” or “ze/zim” are growing increasingly popular. Likewise, it is becoming more common for people to avoid using pronouns altogether, and instead just use their name in all circumstances.
This gain in popularity reflects both a need for more inclusivity in the language we use and a desire to keep us all connected. When trans people like myself hear others use gender-neutral pronouns, whether in regards to other people or when referring to us directly, we feel seen. It’s an acknowledgement and recognition of our existence. The usage of these pronouns and names validates both our identities and experiences, and helps us to continue feeling connected to others, as the culture surrounding us continues to shift and evolve.
Below, you’ll find answers to some common questions surrounding the use of gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them,” “ze/zim,” “sie/hir,” and others, and a guide to how you can use them in everyday conversation.
You may have recently heard of the pronouns “they,” “ze,” “xe,” or “hir” and thought to yourself, what in the world is “ze?” Ze, hir, xe, and the singular they are gender-neutral pronouns that initially arose out of the necessity for pronouns that were more inclusive of women, and later to be more inclusive of a wide spectrum of genders. Trans and nonbinary people like myself sought out these pronouns or created new ones because we felt he or she weren’t suitable for our needs or identity. Gender-neutral pronouns don’t assume a gender for the person or persons being discussed. They can be used to refer to anyone in conversation. More importantly, they can be validating for anyone who lives beyond the binary.
While gender-neutral pronouns have risen in popularity over the last few years, the trans and nonbinary communities have embraced and advocated for their use since the late 20th century. But their existence, and debates around their necessity, have long predated public advocacy from trans communities. Gender-neutral pronouns have been coined and discussed publicly for centuries.
Since the mid-1800s, dozens of gender-neutral pronoun alternatives have been proposed, advocated for, adopted, and fallen out of favor. Few have caught on widely — but just because you might be seeing “xe/xem” or “ze/zir” for the first time today doesn’t mean they’re new.
Critical discussions about the use of and need for gender-neutral pronouns date back to the late 18th century. According to Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He or She, gender-neutral pronouns were discussed frequently among local newspapers and periodicals starting in 1789.
“[‘They’ is] a natural way to use a pronoun to refer to someone whose gender is unknown or irrelevant,” says Baron. “In some cases it was used to conceal the gender of the person they were talking about because they were gossiping or because revealing the person’s identity could put them in danger.” Charles Dickens used they to anonymize gender in The Pickwick Papers, for example.
The singular “they” was common until the Victorian era, when gender-neutral pronouns defaulted to “he” as encompassing both the masculine and feminine. People recognized the limits of “he” and argued that it was insufficient — anyone who read “he” would immediately think of men, and not women.
“The pronoun ‘hir’ was coined in 1920 by a newspaper in California, The Sacramento Bee,” Baron explains. “They tried using that off and on from the 1920s through to the 1940s.” “Ze,” often assumed to be a more recently coined term, was created by “a writer identified only as J. W. L.” in 1864, Baron writes. In 1858, an American composer named Charles Crozat Converse invented the pronoun “thon” (short for “that one”), which even made it into well-regarded dictionaries — Funk and Wagnalls’ Standard Dictionary in 1903, and Webster’s Second New International Dictionary in 1934 — but never caught on in popular usage. What’s clear is that these pronouns have a long history within languages, one that’s still evolving today.
There are tons of gender-neutral pronouns out there, and certainly too many to exhaustively list in this guide. Here are a few common ones; note that there are variants and different ways to spell many of these pronouns, so what you see here may not match the gender-neutral pronouns you might see in use by others.
According to the Gender Census 2019, an online survey about how LGBTQ+ people self-identify in terms of gender and pronoun use, the most frequently used gender-neutral pronoun among 11,242 respondents was “they,” followed by “xe.” Many said they choose to avoid using pronouns altogether.
Perhaps you’re not sure yet how to use these gender neutral pronouns in a sentence. Let’s say we work together and you needed to refer to me in an email, but didn’t want to have to constantly use my name. My pronouns are ze/zim/zis. Simply replace the H from he, him, or his with a Z. Perhaps your email would look something along the lines of:
“Devin-Norelle and I discussed the final project today, and ze said ze will take care of most of the legwork. Once I add my slides to the powerpoint, I’ll send it over to zim to edit down.”
Other examples might include:
Where did ze go?
I needed to deliver this package to zim.
These keys belong to zim.
Zis pronouns are ze/zim/zis.
I’m sure someone has made similar complaints about the word “you.”
“The singular you came about in the 17th century. Prior to then, you was always plural. Now we’ve sort of forgotten,” says Baron.
We’ve also forgotten that the singular they has been used by English speakers and writers since the 14th century. It’s appeared in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and even in the much-dreaded Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
So, again, the singular they isn’t just some made up conspiracy — it’s simply reclaiming its time.
If you’re meeting someone one-on-one for the first time and don’t know their pronouns, you could start by sharing your own when making an introduction. Offering your own pronouns first helps make others more comfortable sharing their own: “I’m Devin-Norelle and my pronouns are ze/zim, nice to meet you.” Then you can ask for their name and pronouns, or more simply ask, “how may I address you?”
When there’s other people around or you’re in a group, never single out one person and ask them to share their pronouns if you think they don’t go by “he” or “she” — doing so can out them as trans or nonbinary to people who might not otherwise know, potentially creating an unsafe situation. I’ve both heard and experienced horror stories where people who are simply perceived as trans were approached by strangers asking their pronouns, potentially outing them in front of other strangers or friends who may not have known they were trans.
In a group setting, it’s best to offer your name and pronouns and ask everyone to go around to share their own. Asking and using correct pronouns are powerful opportunities to show respect, and it should be a common practice, no matter how those we share company with identify. Even people we assume are cisgender might also use gender-neutral pronouns. In the event that you don’t know someone’s pronouns, you can use they/them/theirs or simply refer to them by their name until you do.
We all make mistakes, and you likely will the first handful of times you’re referring to someone by pronouns you’re not familiar with. It’s okay! Briefly apologize, correct yourself, and continue the conversation. Apologizing profusely can draw unnecessary attention to or cause embarrassment for someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Quickly acknowledge your mistake and correct yourself, and then continue on with the conversation.
If you hear someone else use incorrect pronouns for someone else, don’t point it out, but affirm the correct pronouns in your own speech and address them privately later, unless you have been given permission to speak up in the moment. Sometimes, pointing out that someone has made a mistake can again shift unwarranted and embarrassing attention to the person with gender neutral pronouns.
Sometimes, we don’t get an opportunity to introduce ourselves and inquire about another person’s pronouns before we have to refer to them — but there are other ways to approach the situation when we don’t have the information we need. First and foremost, when we don’t know, we should default to they/them pronouns, or if you feel uncomfortable using any pronouns at all, default to using their name. The singular they is unassuming, all-inclusive, and can be used to refer to anyone. If used in conversation, it also allows another person to correct you if they happen to have the right information. (And once you do know someone’s correct pronouns, use those — don’t just continue to use they/them.
Another method is by asking a mutual friend or acquaintance. For example, perhaps you’ve started a new job, met a friendly co-worker, and while in conversation, you realize you have not had a chance to ask another coworker their pronouns. They just came up in conversation, and you assume they are cis, but don’t want to make an assumption. It’s ok to ask that worker for their pronouns. It’s important to note that this should happen whether your discussing a cis person or trans person. By only asking the pronouns of a trans person, you are singling them out, and potentially outing them.
The most well-known gender-neutral honorific is Mx.! There are many more, including Misc., Msr., Myr., Pr., and Sai. But many people chose not to use honorifics at all, in which case, just stick to their name.
“I think acknowledging people by their pronouns (regardless if chosen or not) accurately, intentionally, and respectfully identifies them. When my pronouns are used my identity is affirmed,” says Indya Moore, a non-binary actor and advocate.
What Moore implies is that we can’t ever assume a person’s gender or how they identify. For many, gender identity and gender presentation are drastically different. For example, I am often perceived as a man, but I don’t identify as one. So when people call me “he” and sometimes even “she,” I squirm, cringe, and pout. It’s frustrating when people assume I am a man or identify as a man because I have a beard. Whenever I’m asked for my pronouns, I feel validated.
Lastly, we should always remember that although it is commonplace for us to say, “preferred pronouns,” someone’s pronouns are never “preferred.” Activists remind us that by calling pronouns “preferred,” it would suggest they are not real or should not be respected. Pronouns are just our pronouns. They are not preferred.
Isn’t this how language works? We’ve been doing so for centuries and we make up words all the time in our daily lives. Sometimes we combine words to form a new one, or adapt words from other languages. We create words with our family and friends. That’s how slang works and how new terms enter our lexicon.
“Sometimes, people pick up on a particular word, it becomes ingrained in the broader language. So yes, people are making up pronouns, especially if they don’t like the ones that are available,” explains Baron. This does not invalidate pronouns, or make them any less real then other made up words of our language. They are as valid as words borrowed from other languages and combined to form a new, relevant word.
Ask your friends if you can practice using they/them on them, even if they aren’t trans. Practice makes perfect, and it’s superb allyship. Imagine walking into a room with strangers and you introduce yourself along with your pronouns and ask everyone to do the same. Chances are, if there’s a trans person in that room who is not out, they might immediately feel welcomed to the space by your gesture. And if there isn’t a trans person, welp, a room full of strangers just learned something new. It’s an excellent ice breaker!
If you don’t have friends to practice with, there are apps and websites dedicated to your growth! At a website called Practice with Pronouns, you can practice using any set of pronouns and get a sense of how they’d be used in a sentence.
About the author: Devin-Norelle is a nonbinary model, advocate, and writer. Ze has written for Teen Vogue, Allure, them, and Out magazine. Ze recently walked in the York Fashion Week show for Chromat and has modeled for Bonobos’ Pride Campaign.