How to Use Gender Neutral Pronouns

This year, Merriam-Webster officially added singular nonbinary “they” to its vocabulary , signaling a major shift in the way we view and embrace gender-neutral pronouns, and putting an end to people who refuse to use them / them because that this is “grammatically” wrong. “If you’re still not used to such an inclusive language – come on folks, it’s 2019! – here’s a handy tutorial.

Why use gender neutral pronouns?

There are many good reasons to develop the habit of using gender-neutral pronouns, but here are two main ones:

  • You can refer to individuals or groups of people without assuming (or guessing) their gender — and without assuming that they are men or women. (Gender is not binary.)
  • When you know that a person is using gender-neutral pronouns, it will be easier for you to use those pronouns naturally, without having to “translate” in your head before speaking.

Gender neutral pronouns are great because they allow you to talk to and about people without making what might be a wrong assumption about their gender. Just because someone seems feminine or masculine does not mean that they are male or female, after all – they can be agender or non-binary, or simply different from your expectations of what a man or woman looks like. Using gender-neutral pronouns allows you to involve all people when you speak and encourages others to do the same.

What are some common gender-neutral pronouns?

“They” is the most commonly used gender-neutral pronoun – in fact, you probably already use “they” in your everyday language without even thinking about it.

I spoke with a customer service representative and they helped me solve the problem.

Looks like someone left a jacket on this chair.

I don’t know who is in charge, but we have to find them.

Although “they” can be used as a plural pronoun (ie, to refer to a group of people), people tend to automatically use “they” as a singular pronoun when they do not know someone’s gender. “They” is also one of the more popular pronouns used by agender or non-binary people (and of course, according to Merriam-Webster, this is now official).

This means that adding “they / they / them” to your vocabulary will be relatively easy. Use “they” to refer to specific people who told you that this is their pronoun, but remember to use it for those whose gender you don’t know, which, as I noted above, is almost everyone you don’t know. I know personally.

It looks like we should meet this man. Look, they wave to us.

(Before you ask, yes, using “they” as a singular pronoun is appropriate in both academic and journalistic work. It’s even in the AP Stylebook.)

Here are some other gender-neutral pronouns that people might be asked to use:

  • Ey / em / eir / eirs
  • Ne / nem / nir / nirs
  • Xe / xem / xyr / xyrs
  • Ze / hir / hir / hirs
  • Ze / cir / cir / cirr

These aren’t the only gender-neutral pronouns – and as the language is constantly growing and changing, don’t be surprised if we develop new gender-neutral pronouns in the next few years.

Also: if you are looking for a gender neutral word to use instead of Mr. / Mrs./Miss/Ms., Try Mx , pronounced “mix” or “multiplexer.”

“He or she” is not gender neutral

Many of us are used to saying “he or she” when we mean people of all genders – and many of us are old enough to remember when “he or she” was seen as a comprehensive choice of language. (Believe it or not, people used to just say “he”, but we treated the world in masculine terms: humanity, salesman, etc.)

However, the use of “he or she” excludes people who are agents or non-binary. This is a great opportunity to replace your binary exclusive phrase with a gender neutral and inclusive one:

  • Instead of “he or she,” use “they,” “they,” “this person,” etc.
  • Instead of greeting the crowd with “ladies and gentlemen,” use “gentlemen,” “y’all,” or a gender-neutral phrase like “Hello everyone!”

Also – and this goes without saying – try not to call the group of people “you guys.” While some people consider “you guys” a gender neutral term, others consider it exclusive, as “guys” are traditionally masculine. (As Slate reminds us, “guy” in the singular almost always refers to a man.)

Don’t forget about pronouns in nouns

Some nouns include generic pronouns, while others imply gender binarity, even if they do not include pronouns. (Think waiter / waitress.) Be aware of what you are saying. Most of us automatically use words like “humanity” and “congressman”, so this shouldn’t affect you too much, but try to choose gender-neutral terms like “server.”

You should also be aware of other ways to avoid gender binaries, such as using the phrase “menstruating men” instead of menstruating women.

How do you recognize someone’s pronouns?

Sometimes a person’s pronouns are easy to learn. They will tell you when they introduce themselves, or write their pronouns on a name tag, or include them on their social media profiles.

However, you don’t have to ask a stranger about their pronouns. While this seems like the right thing to do, keep in mind that you may be asking someone to impersonate transgender, agender, or non-binary, which may be uncomfortable for them depending on the situation. (Imagine a conservative workplace.)

Instead, you can start a conversation about pronouns by sharing your own:

I am Nicole and my pronouns are she / she.

Sharing your pronouns gives other people the ability to share their pronouns without asking them directly. Also: Note that the above example uses the phrase “my pronouns” and not “my preferred pronouns”. While you will occasionally hear the term “preferred pronouns,” it is not always the best term to use as it implies that a person’s gender is just a preference .

Once you’ve learned someone’s pronouns, don’t attach too much importance if you accidentally use the wrong pronoun. It’s okay to say “I’m sorry, I meant them ”; saying, “I didn’t mean, I’m sorry, I’m really trying” is what makes the moment about you. Show that you are trying to use the correct pronouns for the rest of the conversation.

Once you get into the habit of using gender-neutral pronouns, you will realize how easy it is to reach out to people without making gender assumptions. I’ve used gender neutral pronouns in this article, and that didn’t stop you from understanding what I was trying to convey. The more you use gender-neutral pronouns, the more we will begin to include gender-neutral terms in our vocabulary – and the more inclusive our language will become.

This story was originally published on 12/19/17 and updated on 9/24/19 with new information and images.


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