Some interesting info: This is very reminiscent of the Baby X experiments, in which it was discovered that people reacted differently to a baby’s behavior depending on whether or not they believed the baby to be male or female. People were asked to watch a video of a baby reacting to a startling image (a Jack-in-the-box popping up), and describe the baby’s emotional state. When people believed the baby to be female, they described the baby as being scared and upset; when they thought the baby was male, they perceived the baby to be angry. This was very telling, as it showed that literally identical behavior could be construed differently based on the perceived gender of the subject.
Some teens in the Baltimore area have been using “yo” as a gender-neutral pronoun.
I don’t know if any of you are interested in linguistics, but I thought this was pretty cool. (I kinda want to add this to be vocabulary)
and it’s always nice to see some prescriptivists get smacked down in the comments section
Ah, gender-neutral pronouns! Indeed, the English language is not very fond of them, but you may find yourself in need of them for a character who does not fit the gender binary, perhaps someone genderqueer, intersex, or trans* (more on the asterisk in a bit).
Let’s define some terms to start:
Pronoun (n): The part of speech that substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and designates persons or things asked for, previously specified, or understood from the context.
Pronouns can signal a lot about the way individuals perceive themselves, and authorial intent with regard to pronoun use is important. Pronouns speak volumes about a character just as they would a real-life individual and, though most authors take it for granted, there are many characters who are misrepresented by the pronouns she and he. More on that later.
The word pronoun may have a pretty hard and fast definition, but other terms like sex and gender are deceptively difficult to define. Let’s take a look at these words we think we understand so well:
Sex (n): A set of biological and physiological characteristics including but not limited to:
- Evidence of the SRY gene being turned on
- Secondary (external) sex characteristics
- Internal sex characteristics
- Hormone levels
- 23rd pair of chromosomes
Because there are many characteristics to consider, defining the sex of any given person as absolutely “male” or absolutely “female” can be very complicated. Likewise, defining a person’s gender is equally complex.
Gender (n): A set of of internally (personal) and externally (societal) determined criteria used to construct ideas about roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes for people which are generally sorted into constructed categories, such as “masculine” and “feminine”.
Why is it important to know these terms? Because your character’s sex and gender may well fail to fit neatly into society’s expectations. These are separate, nebulous concepts for which there are no definitive definitions. All the better for you, because absolutes make for boring characters.
Let’s delve a little deeper into some terms connected with understanding gender-neutral pronouns:
Gender Identity (n): A personal conception of oneself as male or female (or both or neither).
Gender identity and gender are separate, though connected, concepts. While gender broadly categorizes an individual on myriad social scales; gender identity is most concerned with an individual’s personal opinion of their gender.
When you would like to know a person’s gender, instead of asking, “What are you?” or, “What type of person are you?” it is much more polite to ask, “What pronouns do you prefer?”. Responses to this question might include she, he, they, and ze.
You might have noticed that she and he aren’t the only options when choosing pronouns to describe characters, but you may not have considered or even heard of options like ze before. Why? Well, it may have something to do with the gender binary.
Gender Binary (n): The classification of sex and gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine.
As Hank Green explains in his video “Human Sexuality Is Complicated”, the binary is essentially two nice and shiny boxes. It implies that people are split into categories of either male or female, possess separate gender roles, and have different gender identities altogether. Western society decides this by a pretty base interpretation of a person’s sex. The gender binary slaps on a label of either male or female at a person’s birth because of what is between their legs. It suggests that only men have penises and only women have vaginas, excluding all possibility of trans*folks.
Non-binary people are the ones that do not fit into boxes of either male or female, and may therefore prefer pronouns that are gender-neutral.
So who is non-binary, and who might want gender-neutral pronouns applied to them in writing? Let’s take a look at some possibilities:
Genderqueer (adj): A catch-all term for gender identities other than man and woman, thus outside of the gender binary.
Genderqueer folks may struggle with comfortable, fitting pronouns, as the singular third-person pronouns in English are limited to he and she. Thus, these folks who identify outside of the binary may also use gender-neutral pronouns.
Intersex (n): A general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
A person whose sex is neither definitively male nor female may prefer a gender-neutral pronoun over the heavily gendered traditional pronouns of “he” or “she.”
Trans* (adj): An umbrella term that refers to all of the identities within the gender identity spectrum, with the exclusion of cisgendered men or women.
The term trans* includes the asterisk because it is more inclusive of identities, rather than referring to only transmen or transwomen. Some trans* folks who do not have identities that can be classified as either male or female and whose sexes do not match their gender identities may not be comfortable using he or she as their personal pronouns, opting for gender-neutral ones instead.
Transgender (adj): A term to describe an individual whose gender identity does not match their assigned birth gender; Trans, a prefix derived from Latin, means “across”, “beyond” or “on the opposite side”.
Some transgender folks, too, might not necessarily identify with being male or female, and use gender-neutral pronouns to reflect that.
Cisgender (adj): A term for individuals who have a match between the gender and sex they were assigned at birth; Cis, a prefix derived from Latin, means “to/this the near side”.
Cisgender is a complement to transgender; a person is usually either cisgendered or transgendered. Cisgender folks fit in the gender binary, possessing sexes that match with their gender identities. They are often comfortable using he or she as personal pronouns.
Characters who use gender-neutral pronouns may identify as some of the gender identities described above. To write a character that does not fit in the binary, you must first understand the gender binary. It is important to know what other gender identities might use gender-neutral pronouns as well. Knowing the history of gender-neutral pronouns provides background to their present-day usage. Moreover, in writing them, it helps to know which ones exist and how they are used.
- There are no gender-neutral pronouns in English. At least, if you’re writing something literary and you’re looking for singular, gender-neutral, third-person pronouns in English, you’ll have quite a hard time finding them. Mostly because they do not exist. (There is a slight exception with they/their, which we’ll get to in a minute.) Non-binary folks, then, often will use pronouns that are not found in standard English, such as ze and hir, which are popular in online genderqueer communities.
- People have invented gender-neutral pronouns for 150 years. They’ve generally failed. These valiant efforts were made in an attempt to solve a grammatical conundrum—the lack of such a pronoun in formal writing. All the same, as attempts to invent a gender-neutral pronoun have been made for the last century and a half; it is not a new concept. The argument is that such a change in language will occur naturally, not by force. Some of the old proposed pronouns were thon, nis, ip, hiser, and le. Thon was the most successful of the bunch, having a little bit of recognition during its time, though it still was lost along with the others.
- They has been used in the singular before. In the revered dictionaries of the English language, in the mid-late 1980’s, the word they had been accepted as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. This is not a new idea. Since Shakespeare’s times, a singular they has been accepted.And again:“God send everyone their heart’s desire.”
— William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene 4They is a singular, gender-neutral, third-person pronoun, and you’ve probably used it as one when you didn’t know the identity of someone.“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”
— William Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3They in this case refers to a single caller. A singular, gender-neutral, third person use of they does exist, though it should be noted that it is most often used in colloquial, spoken English. You might see it in dialogue, but it is definitely not commonly found outside of it nowadays.Person 1: Your phone rang while you were out.
Person 2: Did they leave a message?
- Many gender-neutral pronouns are in use today. They work in varying degrees of effectiveness, depending on the person. There are traditional pronouns, he, she, it, and they; then there are invented pronouns, ne, ve, ey, ze, and xe.
Now that you have some definitions and history to back up your understand of this topic, let’s take a look at some tips about using gender-neutral pronouns in your writing!
- Experiment. Chose the pronouns that you feel comfortable with using. Doing this might require a little experimentation. Pronoun use varies widely from writer to writer, but it can also vary between stories by the same writer, and even by characters within the same story. One writer may use Spivak pronouns (E/em/eir), another might opt for ze and hir. Some folks don’t use invented pronouns at all, preferring the more traditional they to refer to themselves in the singular. Pronoun preference differs from person to person, and it’s important to reflect that in your writing. Here is an example of three instances of the same paragraph using different pronouns:
- With he and him:Nate grinned. He wasn’t sure where he was going, but he was on his way now. He was out the door, down the garden path, on the street feeling the wind from passing cars. It was only a matter of time now. An adventure was bound to find him.
- With ze and hir:Nate grinned. Ze wasn’t sure where ze was going, but ze was on hir way now. Ze was out the door, down the garden path, on the street feeling the wind from passing cars. It was only a matter of time now. An adventure was bound to find hir.
- With they and their:Nate grinned. They weren’t sure where they were going, but they were on their way now. They were out the door, down the garden path, on the street feeling the wind from passing cars. It was only a matter of time now. An adventure was bound to find them.
- Sensationalizing gender-neutralism is not cool. When using gender-neutral pronouns in writing, it is vital to know your character and the reasons why this person might choose certain pronouns over others. It is important, too, to understand the complications of human sexuality and gender identity in various cultures, and how your character might identify within the spectra of gender. Do not make character decisions based on what seems the quirkiest. Do not make character decisions based on your need to feel accepted by the genderqueer community. The use of gender-neutral pronouns is not a character quirk; it is part of that character’s gender identity and it is representative of a real community of real people. Be respectful.
- Gender identity (and, by extension, gender-neutral pronouns) are not the whole story. That character is a person, and people are ridiculously complicated. One aspect of a character, like, say, their gender identity or the color of their skin, is not and cannot be the most important thing about them (unless it is). It is not and cannot be the only thing that drives their actions, thoughts, and dialogue (unless it is). That is a stock character and writing a genderqueer stock character may not get your point across as you intended.
People are confusing. They have lots of factors that drive their actions. Make sure you take all of these factors into account as you write, or you might choke the life out of your character.
- It’s not your job to pander to your reader. Often, a reader who is unfamiliar with gender-neutral pronouns may be taken out of the story by their use. This should not be a determent on your part. You are introducing them to new ideas, to a new outlook of the world, to your style of writing. They will get used to reading gender-neutral pronouns to accurately represent your character or they will put the book down. Either way, that is a reader’s decision, not yours. Your job is to write a good story with honest, believable characters.
Be true to yourself. Be true to your character and your story. Be respectful of the real, definitely not made-up group of people you are portraying when you write genderqueer individuals into your story. If you can do those things, then you’re on the right track.
- Human Sexuality Is Complicated
- Let’s Talk About Sexuality and Gender: A guide for friends and family of LGBT*QIA individuals
- Understanding Gender
- Gender Neutral Language in Formal Writing
- Gender Neutral Writing in Fiction
- Gender Neutral Pronouns are Confusing
- A Singular Use of They
- History of Gender Neutral Pronouns
- Gender Neutral Pronouns in Fiction (Be sure to read Elyan Smith’s comment)
If you have any questions about this article or writing in general, feel free to hit up our ask box!
-Q and C
We also need to give a big thank you to xanderisthegreatest and his girlfriend for their advisory role in the creation of this post. We couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you!
Oh, and by the way: I AM a radical feminist. As I’ve said before, I think it’s complete bullshit that the term has been co-opted by transphobes like Janice Raymond and self-absorbed jerks who perform their own genders all goddamn day long at the same time that they castigate trans* people for “reinforcing gender stereotypes.” I personally believe that fucking with gender vis-a-vis Judith Butler is an incredibly important part of changing our oppressively gendered system, and that IS a radical notion. But I think any talk of “abolishing” gender is fucking fascist bullshit, and I meet way too many people whose idea of changing gender seems to be no more imaginative than just fucking enforcing new rules of how people are supposed to behave based on their bodies. Telling a person, trans or not, that they are too “typically” or “stereotypically” gendered is, to me, the most self-evidently oppressive shit in the world. What is the end-game there? You are still dictating the terms of peoples’ expression based on their bodies! So, moral of the story: fuck that.
A guide to being an ally for friends and family of LGBT*QIA individuals.
Online ebook available [HERE] if you would like to share with others but do not wish to link to your tumblr. (Also, it’s fun to turn the pages.)
Original size 20x24” posters available for educational purposes. Contact me directly for files.
Might be extra useful this holiday season :)
Saw this on a Facebook art and revolution based page. Of course I immediately thought of this blog and that you all might appreciate it.