By now, the cultural visibility of the transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming community has seriously expanded the way that we view gender. And while general awareness about gender diversity has increased, there are still some technical aspects that many people continue to struggle with, chief among those being the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
As a genderqueer advocate and media personality who has used gender-neutral pronouns for years, I have quite a few pointers and tips to share. But don’t just take it from me; I also spoke with Nick Adams, director of GLAAD’s transgender media program, about his thoughts on the issue. With our guidance, you can show up to that gender-fabulous dance party with confidence.
Let’s get to it.
Why do people want to use gender-neutral pronouns anyway? What’s wrong with gendered pronouns?
It’s not that there is something wrong with gendered pronouns; it’s just that the pronouns “he” and “she” come with a certain set of expectations about how someone should express their identity and relate to the world. For many people, gender normativity can get in the way of self-expression—so the words “he” or “she” can feel limiting. “Some people have a gender identity that is non-binary, and conventional pronouns have the effect of assigning them a binary identity,” says Adams.
Take me, for example. I was assigned male at birth, but I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to get away from the expectations that have been placed on me because of that. Asking people to use the gender-neutral pronoun “they” instead of “he” to refer to me has been a big step in my journey toward self-love and self-acceptance.
If someone doesn’t want to be referred to as “he” or “she,” what should I use? What are the options?
In my experience, the most common gender-neutral pronoun used by genderqueer and gender nonconforming people is “they/them/their,” but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option. Some people choose to use the gender-neutral pronouns “ze/hir/hirs” (pronounced “zee/here/heres”) or “ey/em/eir” (pronounced “ay/em/airs”), among others. There are lots of gender-neutral pronouns out there, and they can certainly get confusing. That’s where Google comes in handy!
My fifth grade teacher always told me that using “they” as a singular pronoun was grammatically incorrect. Is my fifth grade teacher wrong about that?
While I’m sure your fifth grade teacher meant well when they were teaching you the rules about pronouns, the rules you learned in fifth grade are most likely outdated by now. In fact, the 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society declared the singular “they” the 2015 word of the year. Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionary both also include the singular “they.”
Whether your fifth grade teacher likes it or not, “they” is now a recognized and grammatically correct singular pronoun.
Also, I don’t know the gender identity of your fifth grade teacher, which is why I used “they,” rather than “he or she.” Not only is “they” a more streamlined option, “they” also allows room for the possibility that your fifth grade teacher didn’t identify as a man or a woman at all! Maybe they were genderqueer. Maybe they were nonbinary. I don’t know their gender, so I’m not going to artificially limit your fifth grade teacher’s gender identity to one of two options. It’s a more inclusive, fabulous way to go about it.
So we can just make up any words we want now?
Kind of! Like gender, language is necessarily a creative enterprise that changes over time. The honorific “Ms.” is a great example. “At some point in the past, ‘Ms.’ was a new honorific to recognize a woman who didn’t want to be addressed solely on the basis of her marital status,” says Adams. “Now, we don’t even question its use.”
Language changes; it grows, expands, morphs and adapts to meet the needs of the modern day. That’s part of what makes it fun. The addition of gender-neutral pronouns in the English language is just another part of that evolution.
O.K., fine. I guess gender-neutral pronouns are grammatically correct. But how do I conjugate them?
It changes with each type of gender-neutral pronoun, but the conjugation for the singular “they” is fairly intuitive. Take me, for example. I use “they” as my pronoun, so you could talk about me like this:
Jacob went to the store to get some guacamole supplies. They were having a lovely time until they lost their temper when they they couldn’t find any ripe avocados. They shouldn’t be too hard on themself, though. They’ll probably have better luck on their guacamole quest next time.
For more practice, check out this nifty guide written by students at MIT.
What about Ms., Mrs. and Mr.? Are there gender-neutral options for those?
Fortunately, there are! If you need to refer to someone who prefers gender-neutral pronouns in a formal context, you can use the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” If you’re inviting me to your fancy dinner party, you can address the invitation to “Mx. Tobia.”
Are gender-neutral pronouns only for transgender and gender nonconforming people?
Not at all. While gender-neutral pronouns are often used by genderqueer and gender nonconforming people, you don’t have to identify that way in order to use them. If you feel more comfortable navigating the world without gendered expectations, then gender-neutral pronouns can work for you. There’s no identity you have to claim in order to use genderless language. “Anyone who wants to use gender-neutral pronouns can use them,” agrees Adams.
I saw someone who looked like they may have been genderqueer the other day. Should I have used gender-neutral pronouns?
Perhaps, but that’s not the right question to ask. You can never make any assumptions about what pronoun someone uses based off of their appearance. There’s no such thing as “looking like” a he, a she or a they. The only way you can know what pronoun someone prefers is by asking them.
In practice, you should ask everyone what pronoun they use if you don’t know. When you don’t know someone’s pronouns and can’t ask them, it’s always safe to use the gender-neutral “they” until you hear otherwise.
Isn’t that awkward to ask when you first meet someone?
Meeting new people is always awkward. But using the wrong pronoun to refer to someone is more awkward because pronouns are about respect. “By using the right pronoun, you can show that you see and respect their identity,” says Adams. Really, it’s about creating a culture where asking people about their pronouns is just a normal, natural part of introductions. Like this:
“Hello, new person that I’m meeting at a cocktail party. I’m Jacob.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Andre. What pronouns do you use Jacob?”
“I use they. What about you?”
“I use he, thanks for asking. Anyway, um, some weather we’re having today, huh?”
Asking about pronouns will not solve your social awkwardness issues, but it will definitely make you a nicer, more empathetic human being.
Are you sure that I have to ask? Won’t someone just tell me if they prefer a pronoun other than he or she?
Someone might proactively tell you if they prefer gender-neutral pronouns, but if you make an assumption about their pronoun without asking, then the onus will fall on them to correct you. And we all know how awkward it is to have to correct an erroneous assumption that a stranger makes about you.
It’d be like living in New York City, assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas and then expecting people who celebrate another holiday to correct you. They might still tell you that they are Jewish or Muslim or atheist and don’t celebrate Christmas, but it’s pretty inconsiderate and will most likely make you look like a jerk in the process.
So I now have to ask everyone that I meet what their pronouns are?
Yeah. It’s the only way to ensure that we’re building a gender-inclusive world where people are allowed to determine their gender identities for themselves.
Ugh. But what if I don’t want to?
It’s 2016. You need to know how to use email, and you need to know how to ask people what pronouns they use.
O.K., fine. You win. I’ll start asking people about their pronouns and get over my old-school grammar issues.
Great. Glad we could clear that up. Wanna get a cup of coffee?
Jacob Tobia is a Brooklyn-based writer, speaker and performer.