A guide to using gender pronouns and neopronouns
BY Edward Reese
7th Feb 2024 Life
4 min read
Language is always evolving, but according to activist Edward Reese, gender neutral pronouns have been around since at least the 1300s. Here's how to use them
A pronoun is an inherent part of our language, which we use to replace nouns. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, pronouns refer to either a noun that has already been mentioned or a noun that does not need to be named specifically.
The most commonly used pronouns are personal ones (I, we, he, she, they, etc), which refer to people or things.
English and many other languages are impossible without pronouns, and that’s how it has been for ages.
But lately personal pronouns have become political, and it’s easy to make some conservative people mad by mentioning pronouns in a social media bio.
Why did pronouns become a big thing?
Personal gender pronouns (he/him, she/her, they/them and more) describe how we want to be referred to in third-person conversations.
Usually, they correspond to the person’s gender identity. Most women use she/her pronouns. Most men use he/him.
But it’s also OK to use gender pronouns which are not socially accepted to describe the gender in your ID or the gender you present as.
If you want to show respect for gender non-conforming, non-binary, and trans people, learn to check their pronouns when communicating online.
In offline introductions, it’s polite to tell your pronouns together with your name and ask the people you meet to do the same. For example, “Hi! My name is Mary Smith, and I use she/her pronouns. What pronouns do you use?”
"Personal pronouns are as important for a human as their name"
It’s offensive to use the wrong pronouns for a person repeatedly.
If someone you know comes out as transgender, they can ask you to use new pronouns for themselves. For example, you knew this person as Christine (she/her), and now it’s Chris (he/him).
You might think learning a new habit is hard, but practice makes perfect. Try speaking about them in their new pronouns at home, to a mirror, or tell some stories about them to your other friends. You will get used to it!
Remember that personal pronouns are as important for a human as their name. If you disagree with being called a name you don’t like, please don’t decide for others which pronouns they should use.
Also, a person may use a set of pronouns, like “she/they”, “he/they”, “he/she” or others. It usually means that this person is OK with any pronoun from the set.
Sometimes, one of these pronouns is preferred, and the person will likely tell you which one. And please don’t hesitate to ask: it’s better to know for sure than to imagine how it should be and make a mistake.
Singular “they” is grammatically valid
Look! We used the singular “they” pronoun in the previous section around five times, and no one felt angry about it.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “they” as a singular pronoun has been used in English since 1375. The first mention is recorded in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf.
Now, we commonly use it when we refer to a person whose gender is unknown. For example, “Someone forgot their phone here. I will return it when they come back”.
So, knowing that using “they” as a singular gender neutral pronoun is grammatically correct, you will be able to refer to people with it.
In 2019, Merriam-Webster called “they” a word of the year. The dictionary publisher noted that the reason is the growth of the singular usage of this pronoun.
"'They' as a singular pronoun has been used in English since 1375"
Searches for the definition of “they” on the publisher’s website and apps increased by 313 per cent in 2019 over the previous year. But why?
Starting from the early 2010s, more people in the US and worldwide started identifying as non-binary. Non-binary people are those who don’t identify as either male or female.
In some states and countries, they can get documents with the third gender marker (X in the US, for example, or Divers in Germany), and they deserve their own grammatically correct pronoun.
Not every non-binary person uses “they/them”, but according to 2023’s Gender Census report, 74.5 per cent of them do.
If you have non-binary people with they/them pronouns in your friend’s circle or family, it’s easy to show respect using the correct language.
You can train yourself by reading and retelling the news about non-binary celebrities. Singers Sam Smith and Demi Lovato, and actors Elliot Page and Brigette Lundy-Paine all use the singular “they”.
How to deal with neopronouns?
As I mentioned, not every non-binary person is OK with “they/them”. Some use she/her, he/him, or combinations of different pronouns. Some choose neopronouns like ze/zem, ne/nem, xe/xyr and others.
These gender neutral pronouns are distinct from the common she, he and they.
Neopronouns have been a part of the English language for centuries as well. One of the oldest recorded examples of a neopronoun is “thon/tho self”, a contraction of “that one”. It was used by American composer Charles Crosby Converse in 1858.
"If you meet someone using neopronouns, it’s OK to ask how they work"
Sometimes, people use nouns as neopronouns, such as fae/faer/faerself or star/starself. This usage also has historical and literary tradition, as many science fiction and fantasy writers used neopronouns for non-human characters.
If you meet someone using neopronouns, it’s OK to ask how they work. Most queer people are happy to help with that if you are respectful and polite.
Also, there are more extensive guides and lists of neopronouns online. You can check them out to ensure you use some of the most common neopronouns correctly.
Gender pronouns are not scary or controversial
As you can see, gender pronouns are not scary or controversial. Using the right pronouns in conversations with and about transgender or nonbinary people is a mark of dignity and acceptance.
If you believe everyone should be treated respectfully and that equality is essential, you will learn these possibly unfamiliar speaking methods.
Ultimately, learning new things and changing how you speak is also an excellent activity for your brain.
Edward Reese, 38, he/him, trans* nonbinary activist. Edward has worked in LGBTIQ+ NGOs since 2019, took part in various international trans* conferences, and created a series of lectures about queer theory and nonbinary identities for beginners. In 2023 he was one of the World Innovators in the Human Rights Campaign Summit. Now, Edward works as a Gender and Sexuality Expert at Taimi, an LGBTQ+ dating app
Banner credit: VICE / The Gender Spectrum Collection
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