Gender Neutral Pronouns May Seem Like A New Thing, But They Aren’t

·8-min read
Photo credit: Jena Ardell - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jena Ardell - Getty Images

When it comes to gender neutral pronouns, forget what you were taught in school. Most English textbooks teach pronouns limited to the gender binary. So, you're probably already familiar with "she/her/hers," "he/him/his," and the plural "they/their," which is used to refer to a group of people.

The other "they" likely wasn't mentioned. The singular "they" is just one of many gender neutral pronouns used by people who identify outside of the gender binary or consider themselves gender fluid, like pop singer Demi Lovato, who recently came out as non-binary and said their preferred pronouns are "they/them/theirs."

"I'll officially be changing my pronouns to they/them," the "Dancing With The Devil" singer shared during an episode of their podcast, 4D With Demi Lovato. "I feel that this best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and am still discovering." Demi is the most recent celebrity to announce this change publicly, but other celebs like Sam Smith and Indya Moore, have also been instrumental in bringing more awareness to identities and pronouns that don't subscribe to the gender binary.

In doing so, they have not only made it a little easier for others to live their truths, but have played a key role in helping to normalize the use of gender neutral pronouns. Because most current adults didn't grow up using language this way, adding gender neutral pronouns to your daily conversations can seem a bit confusing at first. To clear up any questions you may have (and it's totally okay if you do!), here's what's important to know about gender neutral pronouns.

What are gender neutral pronouns?

First, let's define what pronouns are. "Pronouns are the shortcuts we use to identify ourselves and others without specifically using given names," says Tracy Marsh, PhD, faculty member for Walden University’s PhD in Clinical Psychology program. Thing is, pronouns are traditionally gendered—think "she" or "him."

Gender neutral pronouns, also known as neopronouns, are pronouns that stray away from this idea, meaning they don't specify a person's gender. For some folks, gender neutral pronouns better align with their gender identity, explains Marsh. "Rather than using 'him' or 'her,' a person [may use] 'they,' 'ze,' or 'xe.'"

Why are gender neutral pronouns used?

You should use gender neutral pronouns whenever you are speaking with or referring to someone who uses them, says Marsh. "For example, if your friend or colleague states that they use the pronouns they/them/theirs, you would refer to that person in the following ways: 'They joined us for dinner last night,' or 'They were delighted with themselves for how great the dessert tasted,' or 'It was their homemade recipe.'"

Gender neutral pronouns can also be used in spaces where someone doesn't want to make an assumption about another person's gender or gender identity, says Heath Fogg Davis, Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at Temple University and author of Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?. In this case, you might use a gender neutral pronoun in the workplace, a school setting, or other spaces where gender may not be relevant to what's being discussed. Davis says he personally does this when he's teaching in order to de-emphasize the sex binary.

Using gender neutral pronouns broadly when you're not sure of another person's pronouns can be a powerful way to avoid making assumptions about someone’s gender or gender identity, adds Marsh.

Another reason people may use gender neutral pronouns? They simply don't believe in gender or don't want to conform to the ideals or expectations people place on gender, says Davis.

Are gender neutral pronouns a new thing?

It may seem so because it feels like they've become more mainstream over the last few years. "Awareness of diverse pronouns has been growing. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that most adults in the U.S. are at least familiar with the concept, and roughly one in five know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns," Marsh says.

But gender neutral pronouns aren't new. In fact, they go way, way back, says Dennis Baron, professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and author of What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She. "'They' is popular now as a non-binary pronoun for people who are trans, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming. But singular 'they' has always been a popular device for writers when gender is unknown, irrelevant, or when it needs to be concealed to protect the anonymity of a person you’re talking about," explains Baron, who notes the singular "they" has actually been in use in the English language since the 14th century.

Another thing that may surprise you: "They/them" aren't the only gender-neutral pronouns. Other gender neutral pronouns that are also starting to garner public awareness include "xe/xem," "ze/zim," and "sie/hir." They're used to identify people who don't conform to the binary. But Baron says that he's personally aware of more than 200 coined gender-neutral or non-binary pronouns: "The earliest coined pronouns I found are E, es, and em, created in 1841 by a doctor, Francis A. Brewster, who also wrote a grammar book."

Thon is another. "Thon was coined in 1858 by Charles Converse, a well-known American hymn writer, though it wasn’t widely publicized until the 1880s," says Baron. And the list can go on and on.

These other pronouns aren't as common as "they/them," though. "In my view, singular 'they' has proved its success. It’s used by people who care about gender inclusiveness. It’s used by people who reject the idea of gender inclusiveness. And it’s used by people who don’t think about gender inclusiveness at all," explains Baron.

How do I use them in a sentence?

The way you use gender neutral pronouns in a sentence really depends on your preference, but there seem to be established patterns, explains Baron.

Right now, it seems most people follow established grammar rules, so you can treat the singular 'they' as if it's plural. For example, if you want to say that a person who uses gender neutral pronouns is heading out somewhere, you can say something like, "They are going to the restaurant," or "They will be attending the event tonight."

If you want to use an honorific, which are words like "Sir/Madam," or "Mr./Ms.," a common one that has emerged is "Mx," which removes the assumption of any kind of gender from the word.

Watch this to learn more about Demi Lovato announcing they are non-binary:

How do I learn someone’s pronouns?

One of the best ways to learn someone’s pronouns is to lead with your own, say both Marsh and Davis. "Whether you prefer traditional or neopronouns, stating your pronouns when introducing yourself or as part of your email signature sends a message that you are sensitive to and supportive of gender diversity," Marsh explains.

After stating your own pronouns, the other person might volunteer theirs, but if they don't, you can also ask about them. Marsh recommends your conversation sound something like this: "Hi, my name is Tracy. I go by she/her/hers. How would you like me to refer to you?"

Not everyone will feel comfortable or safe having this conversation, adds Marsh, and that's okay. It's important you're respectful of the other's persons boundaries and feelings.

If using gender neutral pronouns seems difficult or frustrating to you because you're not used to it, just practice. Since they aren't usually taught in school, it can take a while for them to become a natural part of your conversation, meaning you having to be more mindful of others' preferences, says Marsh. But one way to practice is to add them into your everyday conversation. "Try using the terms 'friends,' 'guests,' or 'colleagues' rather than 'ladies and gentlemen,' 'boys and girls,' or 'hey guys.' In doing so, your efforts contribute to creating a more inclusive and diverse society for everyone," Marsh suggests.

Why is it important to respect people who go by gender neutral pronouns?

Describing someone by the pronouns they wish to be identified by shows that you respect a person's freedom to identify the way they want, says Davis. It also shows that you understand that gender identity is more complex and fluid than traditional pronouns allow it to be, adds Marsh. "By asking and using someone’s preferred gender pronoun, you are treating them with honor and respect. Many of us know someone who asks to be called by a variant of their given name, such as 'Bill' rather than 'William.' Insisting on calling that person William would be seen as disrespectful and hurtful," says Marsh.

Davis adds that using gender neutral pronouns can also minimize the risk of you misgendering someone, and consequently, making them feel devalued or disrespected. The golden rule applies to pronouns, too.

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