Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG
If you feel awkward using gender-neutral pronouns - or avoid them because you don't know how to use them correctly - it's time to get up to speed. Language tends to shift towards inclusivity, and gender-neutral pronouns are becoming more widely used, so get in the habit now before you become one of those people who's communicating with outdated language.
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume you're a person who doesn't regularly use gender-neutral pronouns. (Or, at least, you don't think you do. As I explain below, we use them more often than we realise.)
Why use gender-neutral pronouns?
There are a lot of good reasons to get into the habit of using gender-neutral pronouns, but here are the two big ones:
- You can refer to individuals or groups of people without assuming (or guessing) their gender - and without assuming they're men or women. (Gender is not a binary.)
- When you know that a person uses gender-neutral pronouns, it will be easier for you to use those pronouns naturally, without having to "translate" in your head before you speak.
Gender-neutral pronouns are great because they allow you to speak to and about individuals without making what might be incorrect assumptions about their gender. Just because someone appears feminine or masculine doesn't mean they are a man or a woman, after all - they could be agender or nonbinary, or simply differ from your expectations of what a man or a woman looks like.
Using gender-neutral pronouns allows you to include 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 thinking about it.
I talked to the customer service rep, and they helped me fix the problem.
It looks like someone left their jacket on this chair.
I don't know who's in charge, but we should find them.
Even though "they" can be used as a plural pronoun (i.e. to refer to a group of people), people tend to automatically use "they" as a singular pronoun when they don't know someone's gender. "They" is also one of the more popular pronouns used by people who are agender or nonbinary.
This means it should be relatively easy to add "they/them/theirs" to your vocabulary. Use "they" to refer to specific people who have told you it's their pronoun, but don't forget to use it for anyone whose gender you don't know - which is, as I noted above, pretty much everyone you don't know personally.
It looks like that's the person we're supposed to meet. Look, they're waving at us.
(Before you ask: yes, it is appropriate to use "they" as a singular pronoun in both academic and journalistic work. It's even in the AP Stylebook.)
Here are some other gender-neutral pronouns that people might request you use:
These aren't the only gender-neutral pronouns out there - and since language is continuously growing and changing, don't be surprised if we develop new gender-neutral pronouns in the next few years.
Also: if you're looking for a gender-neutral word to use in place of Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms., try Mx, pronounced "mix" or "mux."
"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 the inclusive language choice. (Believe it or not, people used to just say "he," and we referred to the world in masculine terms: mankind, salesman, etc.)
However, using "he or she" excludes people who are agender or nonbinary. This is a great opportunity for you to swap out a binary-exclusive phrase for one that is both gender neutral and inclusive:
- Instead of "he or she," use "they," "them," "this person," etc.
- Instead of greeting a crowd with "ladies and gentlemen," use "gentlefolk," "y'all," or a gender-neutral phrase like "Hello, everybody!"
Also - and this goes without saying - try to avoid referring to a group of people as "you guys". Although some people consider "you guys" a gender-neutral term, others find it exclusive, since "guys" is traditionally masculine. (As Slate reminds us, "guy" in the singular nearly always refers to a man.)
Don't forget about pronouns within nouns
Some nouns include gendered pronouns, and other nouns imply a gender binary even if they don't include a pronoun. (Think "waiter/waitress.") Be aware of what you're saying. Most of us automatically use words like "humankind" and "congressperson," so this shouldn't be a huge shift for you - but do your best to choose gender-neutral terms like "server".
You should also be aware of other opportunities to avoid the gender binary, such as using the phrase "people who menstruate" instead of "women who menstruate".
How can you learn someone's pronouns?
Sometimes it's easy to learn a person's pronouns. They will tell you when they introduce themselves, or they will write their pronouns on a nametag or include them in a social media profile.
However, it's not necessarily a good idea to ask a stranger about their pronouns. Even though it feels like the right thing to do, be aware that you might be asking someone to out themselves as trans, agender, or nonbinary - which they may not feel comfortable doing, depending on the situation. (Imagine a conservative workplace.)
Instead, you could start a conversation about pronouns by sharing your own:
I'm Nicole, and my pronouns are she/her.
Sharing your pronouns gives other people the option to share theirs without asking them directly. Also: notice that the example above uses the phrase "my pronouns," not "my preferred pronouns". Although you will occasionally hear the term "preferred pronouns", it's not always the best term to use because it implies that a person's gender is just a preference.
Once you learn someone's pronouns, don't make a big deal out of it if you accidentally use the incorrect pronoun. Saying "sorry, I meant they" is fine; saying "I didn't mean to, I'm so sorry, I'm really trying" is making the moment about you. Show that you're trying by using the correct pronouns for the rest of the conversation.
Once you get in the habit of using gender-neutral pronouns, you'll realise how easy it is to refer to people without making assumptions about gender. I've used gender-neutral pronouns throughout this article, and it didn't stop you from understanding what I was trying to communicate. The more you use gender-neutral pronouns, the more all of us will start incorporating gender-neutral terms into our vocabulary - and the more inclusive our language will become.