Gender-neutral pronouns are those that don’t automatically assume a male/female binary. After the recent change by the Merriam-Webster dictionary to add ‘they’ as a way to refer to nonbinary people who do not identify as male nor female, the most common gender neutral pronouns are ‘they, them, their, theirs, themself.’
In contrast, gendered pronouns would be:
- she, her, hers, herself
- he, him, his, himself
The Rise of Gender Neutral Pronouns
As 2019 is nearing its end and 2020 approaches, a surging number of people are getting tired of the gendered assumptions that have crept into our culture over time, such as the high frequency with which heroes in movies are male, a pay gap between men and women in the marketplace, or a disproportionate amount of men holding the highest political offices, among other examples.
Thousands of people worldwide are also realizing they don’t conform to traditional gender roles and expectations. Others yet are embracing a range of gender identities, including for example, being nonbinary, transgender, intersex, genderfluid, or gender non-conforming (GNC), among other possibilities.
A few decades ago, it was difficult for people to imagine they could be something other than the gender they grew up as. Now, there are many people who are embracing varied gender and sexual identities.
The presence of transgender individuals proves that nobody has any right to permanently impose pronouns onto another person. The rise of nonbinary people reveals that for many, pronouns are limiting or exclusionary.
To learn more about why gender-neutral pronouns are the new normal, keep reading below.
Some Pronouns Just Aren’t Meant to Be
In describing the terms sex and gender, it’s important to note that within Western societies, the word “sex” generally describes biological differences between people (male/female/intersex), while the term “gender” is a broader term that reflects in how a person lives within society (that is, gender identity).
Nonetheless, sex and gender aren’t fully separate from each other. Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender non-conforming performance artist and educator, does a beautiful job of explaining that separating gender as “cultural” and sex as “biological” neglects that biological sex is also cultural. That is, many cultures don’t perceive adornment as a supplement to the body. In other words, ‘this is not my costume, it’s my being’.
This is relevant because many languages designate objects in terms of their gender. In French, for example, chairs are referred to in feminine terms. This function of language highlights an interesting characteristic of gender — that gender is a human invention and assigned through cultural norms.
Simply put, gender is an invention of the people around an individual, about the individual.
In some cultures, the sex a person is assigned at birth largely determines how they are allowed to present in society, the emotions they are allowed express, and the roles they get to play in society. Thankfully, most people now acknowledge that masculinity and femininity are separate from sex, and at best, loosely correlated with gender.
People assigned male at birth can be feminine, right alongside people who are assigned female at birth. The same is true in reverse. People assigned female at birth can be masculine, alongside people who are assigned male at birth.
With that understanding comes new kinds of pronouns to describe people outside of the binary gender system.
While some of the new gender-neutral pronouns may seem strange and foreign, like ‘Ze’ or ‘Xe’, these pronouns are gathering momentum. They are being embraced by people who live outside of the binary gender system, and therefore, challenge the norms of language itself.
‘They’ as a Gender-Neutral Pronoun
Not all gender-neutral pronouns need to be new words or additions to the lexicon. Rather, the most gender-neutral word in the English language is one you use with incredible frequency. It’s the word ‘they.’
On September 17, 2019, singular ‘they’ was defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a way to refer to nonbinary individuals who identify as neither male nor female. Traditionally, ‘they’ had been restricted to referencing groups of people, but this is no longer the case.
The addition of ‘they’ as a pronoun for nonbinary people (along side ‘he’ and ‘she’) was a way to revise the dictionary to reflect changes within society. As Emily Brewster, Senior Editor for Merriam-Webster, explains, “We are always aiming to reflect usage. It’s very clear that this is fully established in the language at this point.”
‘They” was also named Word of the Year in 2015, precisely because of how much it’s changed. It’s interchangeable between groups of people or a single gender-nonconforming person.
Not only is the word ‘they’ so robust, but the fact that’s it’s contextual is revolutionizing the ways people speak to each other. Naturally, people depend on the broader context of sentences to understand if someone is talking about a group or single person.
For this reason, the use of ‘they’ are a personal pronoun is a natural evolution of the English language to reflect and embrace society as it is today.
Why Pronouns Are Changing
People may prefer gender-neutral pronouns for a variety of reasons, including but certainly not limited to:
- Wanting to be inclusive of all genders when speaking to others.
- Not wanting to specify the gender of a person to whom you are referencing. (For example, “I am going out tonight with my spouse. They love to go out to eat at new restaurants in the city.“)
- Wanting to be inclusive of gender non-conforming (GNC) people, such as those who are nonbinary, transgender, intersex, or otherwise GNC.
In my case, I feel that neither the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ do a particularly good job of describing my experience as someone who is androgynous in presentation and regularly gets read as different genders. Often, within a single room or situation, people make varied assumptions about my gender. All too often, use of the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ then creates confusion for the people involved who came to varied conclusions.
Sometimes, these gendered pronouns also confuse me, as I wonder why they choose them based on my particular attire or appearance that day.
I also feel as though layers of expectations and assumptions come along with the use of the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’, which is why ‘they’ typically feels like a better pronoun fit for me. I think ‘they’ just fits me, and it probably has ever since I was a little kid.
I once asked my sister, Lisa, how she thought of me and she said, “You know, you’ve always just been my sibling.” Her word choice wasn’t sister. Or brother. It was sibling, a gender-neutral term.
(Thanks sis, for understanding my gender neutrality before it was even a “thing”!)
Nonbinary People Are Traditionally Excluded
Traditionally, gendered language excludes people who don’t clearly identify as “male” or “female”, such as nonbinary people. Nonbinary is a term used by people who reject the idea of a gender binary.
Whether or not you’re in the presence of a nonbinary person, here are 7 quick tips that will promote inclusivity:
- Use a person’s correct pronouns
- Ask them about their pronouns if you don’t know which ones to use
- When in doubt, address them by their name instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’
- Don’t make assumptions based on how they look
- Don’t use terms (like “ladies and gentleman”) that suggest there are only two genders
- Remember that each person’s experience is unique
- Go to places with gender-neutral bathrooms, changing-rooms, etc.
Did you notice that “Use the correct pronouns” was the first item on that list?
Change Pronouns to Change the World
Language is fundamental to how people experience the world; the words you use matter. Asking other people about their pronouns and using them is critical.
In a quote I love from an article written by Geoff Nunberg of NPR, he states: “It’s not a lot to ask — just a small courtesy and sign of respect. In fact, the accommodations we’re being asked to make to nonbinary individuals are much less far-reaching than the linguistic changes that feminists called for 50 years ago.”
To learn how to make the world a better place, one pronoun at a time, keep reading here.
Up Next: What Does It Mean to Be Nonbinary?