They/them and beyond.
Gender-neutral pronouns are the choice of many people who don’t feel that feminine or masculine pronouns neatly fit their gender identity. This could describe a wide variety of identities, ranging from non-binary to agender (those who don’t identify with any gender) to pangender (those who encompass all genders) to gender fluid (those who sometimes feel more masculine and sometimes more feminine) and beyond.
You may be familiar with using they/them as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun. While many think of this as a new development, it isn’t, extending back at least as far as English poet Geoffery Chaucer in the 14th century. But there are a range of other pronouns someone may choose to use as well.
As communicators, it’s our job to use the most precise language possible to describe people, places and things. This extends to a person’s pronouns. Just as we respect someone named “Joseph” who wants to be called “Joe,” or someone who goes by their middle name instead of their first, it’s simply good manners to use the pronouns someone asks for.
Here’s your easy guide to working with pronouns in comms writing.
How do I know what pronouns to use?
This one is easy: ask. If you’re interviewing someone, confirm their pronouns just as you’d ask them to spell their first and last name. Make it a standard part of your pre-interview routine so no one feels singled out. This will also help transgender people, who may welcome the chance to clarify the gendered pronouns they use.
But do be careful with how you describe their pronouns. NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists’ Stylebook, recommends avoiding asking for “preferred” pronouns “because doing so implies that calling people other than what they want to be called is a viable alternative.”
You don’t need to ask their gender identity. If they choose to share that with you, that’s wonderful, but some might not be comfortable sharing that information. Stick to the information you need to refer to them accurately.
If you can’t speak to someone directly, you might look in places where pronouns are commonly listed, such as in their email signature or social media bios. You may want to consider including yours in these locations too, to normalize sharing this basic information.
Using they/them as a singular, third-person pronoun is the most common gender-neutral pronoun you’ll hear in the English language today. Its use is accepted by AP Style in limited instances, but is gaining widespread acceptance, with many news outlets ignoring the rule in favor of their own house styles.
If your audience is unfamiliar with the term, or if it causes confusion in a sentence where multiple uses of “they” are used, explain it like this: “Alex Smith, who uses the pronouns they/them…”
Even when they/them refers to a single person, the verb tenses should agree with the plural, for instance: they are.
Neopronouns are newly created pronouns. While the terms may be new, again, the idea is not: as early as 1911, terms like “his-er, him-er and he-er” were created.
Some more common neopronouns might include xe/xem or ze/zim or sie/hir, but there are others. Note that AP Style does not currently permit the use of neopronouns, but the NLGJA Stylebook does, though it notes they “may require more explanation.”
Use these neopronouns with singular verbs.
What if I make a mistake?
Mistakes happen. Even with the best intentions, you might slip and revert to traditional he/she pronouns. Whenever you slip up, thank the person for pointing it out, correct yourself and move on. Don’t extend the situation by over-apologizing or making it about yourself.
Using the correct pronouns for someone is a way of showing everyone that you, as a communicator, want to help them share their full, authentic story. Most importantly, it also shows that you respect who they are and where they’ve come from.