It started with a simple card game. Each card had a set of instructions for the player to follow. It was the wording that irked me, wording that tried and failed to be more gender-inclusive. “If the player draws this card and he or she”—I paused, face screwing up as I stared at my hand—“has in his or her hand.” I couldn't help it. I rolled my eyes.
They. Say they.
Save time, effort, and characters by using they. As someone who uses they/them pronouns, I cannot claim to be impartial to the use of they over “he or she” and “he/she/they.” They is only one of several nonbinary pronouns used by nonbinary people today. Please do not come at me with the line that nonbinary pronouns are “trendy.” They’ve been around before the 15th century but fell out of fashion in the English language or were replaced. It happens. Language is ever-evolving, and we must continue to evolve with it.
Which brings me to the topic: how to implement genderless and nonbinary language into your vocabulary. I'll be dividing this post up into different sections for ease of navigation:
The different types of language I'll be discussing are genderneutral/genderless and nonbinary. Genderneutral or genderless language does not tie into a gender identity, as in mail carrier versus mailman. Nonbinary language uses language outside of the gender binary—such as goddex versus the binary goddess or the genderneutral deity.
Saying genderneutral language or pronouns for everything is problematic. Some trans-spectrum and nonbinary-spectrum people do have a gender or are gender-nonconforming. Others, don't. Some trans people are nonbinary and use nonbinary pronouns. Others use binary pronouns but don't identify with a binary gender, like nonbinary (or trans) masc and genderqueer femme. It's all up to the individual. Bottom line: Believe someone when they tell you their pronouns. Period.
Please don’t run away or close the tab now! Neutral and nonbinary language comes as second-nature to me. Ever since I was a child, my brain refused to divvy the world into binary genders (I think it was trying to tell me something). I’ve always thought of people as they and them while using genderless words whenever possible. It felt right, as if I was creating a comfortable space where I could exist as me, the genderqueerling I would blossom into. Now, part of my job as a queer author is to incorporate more nonbinary words into my fiction. Prinxes, Sers, Leirds, all live in the kingdom of the genderfluid Monarch. It’s fun!
So, let’s start with pronouns: neopronouns (new pronouns proposed as replacement to singular they), nonbinary* pronouns, or third gender pronouns. I call them proper pronouns or simply pronouns. Hey, using pronouns outside of the he/she binary is no big deal. They’re no big deal and absolutely nothing to be afraid of. First, let me say they/them singular is not the end all be all of nonbinary pronouns. It's only the beginning.
For charts that lay out the vast variety of pronouns, check my Queer Resources page under pronouns. Or click UNF LGBT Resource Center, Third Person Pronouns Wikipedia, Ask A Nonbinary—List of Pronouns (big list), and Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog (gives excellent examples).
*please be aware that NB has been used as a shortened version of nonbinary and created the word enby. NB is also used for Non-Black people of color. Enby is not interchangeable with nonbinary. Not all people who are nonbinary feel comfortable being called enby and vice versa. If you unsure, please check their bios and do research before asking. The answer might be on their Twitter profiles or websites. Asking is always better than misgendering.
Trigger Warning, I will compare some of the nonbinary pronouns to binary ones for learning purposes only. It is not meant to demean the value of or compare said pronouns in gender. This is for learning purposes only, and I apologize in advance:
He smiled. I’ll asked him. His day was fine. The book is his. He enjoyed himself.
She smiled. I’ll asked her. Her day was fine. The book is hers. She enjoyed herself.
They smiled. I’ll asked them. Their day was fine. The book is theirs. They enjoyed themself.
Ey smiled. I’ll asked em. Eir day was fine. The book is eirs. Ey enjoyed emself.
Ve smiled. I’ll asked ver. Ver day was fine. The book is virs. Ver enjoyed verself.
Ne smiled. I’ll asked nem. Nir day was fine. The book is nirs. Ne enjoyed nemself.
Zie/Ze smiled. I’ll asked zer. Zer day was fine. The book is zers. Zer enjoyed zerself.
Zie/Ze smiled. I’ll asked zir. Zir day was fine. The book is zirs. Zir enjoyed zirself.
Ze smiled. I’ll asked hir. Hir day was fine. The book is hirs. Zir enjoyed hirself.
Thon smiled. I’ll asked thon. Thons day was fine. The book is thons. Thon enjoyed thonself.
Hou smiled. I’ll asked hee. Hy day was fine. The book is hine. Hou enjoyed hyself.
Hu smiled. I’ll asked hum. Hus day was fine. The book is hus. Hu enjoyed humself.
Peh smiled. I’ll asked pehm. Peh’s day was fine. The book is peh’s. Peh enjoyed pehself.
Per smiled. I’ll asked per. Per day was fine. The book is pers. Per enjoyed perself.
Zhe smiled. I’ll asked zhim. Zher day was fine. The book is zhers. Zhe enjoyed zhimself.
Some helpful tips:
They can be plural, singular, or no preference.
With ey/em/eirs/eirself the trick with this one is to think of it as taking the “th” off of they. See it now?
There are four pronouns which are my personal favorites and spelled similarly: xie/zie, xe/ze (pronounced like the American Z). They have different variations depending on the person, which they’ll if they don't verbally say so, they'll probably list them in their professional or social media profile.
For xie or xe/xer/xers/xerself: When first learning, it helps to remember this one conjugated a lot like she, where the x is a replacement for s or h. xer=her, xerself=herself
Xe/xem/xyrs/xemself combines both traits from he and she, while using y to give it more of an androgynous feel. Xem like him, xyrs like hers, xemself like himself. It’s a really interesting construct to follow and one I enjoy.
Please remember pronouns are a matter of respect. A person should be referred to by their proper pronouns regardless of their location. It doesn’t matter they’re in the room or across the globe, always use the correct name and pronouns for a person. There is an exception! If someone is not out and open with their gender or pronouns to everyone, do not out them without their consent. This can cause physical or mental harm to the person. It’s best to ask. For example, “I know you as [name, pronoun]. Is it okay to call you this in front of your parents/coworkers/in public?”
Certain things a person should never say to someone who doesn’t use binary pronouns: It’s too hard for me, I just don’t understand, I don’t see you that way, But you're a man/woman, I don’t care what pronouns you use for me, I use “normal” pronouns. All these statements are me-first statements coated in the cis gaze. They center the cis person and their feelings over the nonbinary person's. It will be difficult to grasp the change at first. However, nonbinary and trans people went through a period of transition, too. I had to stop thinking of myself as my old pronouns and mentally correct myself along with everyone around me. I still do.
It’s even harder for us when we’re misgendered or are told by people—in so many words—that our gender isn’t valid or worth respecting. That’s what a person is doing by not using the correct name and pronouns, they’re not respecting us. Which is why someone shouldn’t expect ally cookies or a pat on the head when showing basic human decency toward another person, be they nonbinary or not.
Singular they has been used for centuries. However, it’s used in a way we don’t think about as being singular. “Whose book is that?” “Oh, it belongs to them.” Is the second person talking about a group of people? No, it’s a person we don’t know the gender of. They/them. More people want to use they as singular, so it’s held in the same regard as he/she and other nonbinary pronouns. After all, we’re not multiple people. Personally, I tell others, “Use whichever as long as you call me they.” I mostly do this because I live in the south and it’s hard enough already. This is me.
Using singular they will take time. Autocorrect will despise it. Like learning a new language, there will be a period of adjustment. The brain needs to unlearn before it can re-learn. Don’t be angry if the change doesn't come naturally. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s okay. Trying is what's important. More importantly, keep trying.
When writing, try implementing he or she in place of singular they to find the correct verb conjugation. Don’t use this trick as a permanent solution. If you do, you might begin to think of the character (or real-life person if that's the case) as cis male or cis female. You will slip up. Apologize then correct yourself. Don't cause a huge kerfuffle. Misgendering is embarrassing for all parties involved. Because it’s one of my favorite books (and readily available online), I’ll use Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Chapter One: Down the Rabbit-Hole as an example of how to write singular they. I'll be changing it to present tense, they/them:
In another moment down goes Alice after it, never once considering how in the world they were to get out again.
The rabbit-hole goes straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dips suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice has not a moment to think about stopping themself before they finds themself falling down a very deep well.
Either the well was very deep, or they falls very slowly, for they has plenty of time as they goes down to look about them and to wonder what is going to happen next. First, they tries to look down and make out what they is coming to, but it is too dark to see anything; then they looks at the sides of the well, and notices that they were filled with cupboards and book-shelves; here and there they see maps and pictures hanging upon pegs. They takes down a jar from one of the shelves as they passes; it is labelled `ORANGE MARMALADE', but to their great disappointment it is empty: they did not like to drop the jar for fear of killing somebody, so manages to put it into one of the cupboards as they falls past it.
I can't emphasize this enough: Don't place the blame upon a person whose pronoun is they singular if you're frustrated with using they singular. It's not their fault. It's best to take a minute before speaking to avoid hurt feelings on both sides. Great change requires great effort.
If you or your organization hosts someone who uses singular they, practice using they in a singular form. Practice what you’re going to say before you say it. Know you’ll make mistakes and that the person has probably heard them before. Know you that isn’t an excuse. Know you’ll need to apologize and correct yourself. Yes, you ought to correct yourself every time. If you don’t, people around you will get the wrong idea. Sometimes, having another person affirming your pronouns makes all the difference. My spouse, who still misgenders me at times, and I have a hand signal. I tap their knee or arm when they have a slip up, and they immediately stop, “I'm sorry. They were saying…”
GENDERNEUTRAL OR NONBINARY WORDS:
Now, I have some examples of genderless words you can use every day. If you want a full list of titles and neutral name options, please read this Gender Queeries list, which can be found on my Queer Resources page under Pronouns.
Child, Kid, Oldest, Youngest, etc
Aunts and Uncles usually go by a name they pick themselves or a name the child chooses and can be based on the person’s name. Some examples are: TiTi, GiGi, Gat Gat, Tante, ZiZi, NiNi.
Nibling is used for niece/nephew or various children in the family
Partner, Spouse, Significant Other, S.O.
Names for a partner are up to the people involved to decide on. I call mine Spouse or Spousal Unit.
This is harder since the English language has binary titles. I did a little experiment when I was deciding on my titles. In my email signature, I said, “Mx or Ser Dill Werner.” Given that I was constantly gendered as male before I came out as genderqueer, I thought the response would be 50/50. Nope. Every person replied, “Mx. Werner.” And that really bothered me. It let me know that I was Ser Werner (as in ser-vice) and not Mx Werner (pronounced like mix). Plus, I feel like a knight.
Ser. or Mx. (Last Name)
Ser or Mx can be used in place of Ma’am or Sir.
There is no widely agreed upon nonbinary Ma’am or Sir replacement. I don’t use any of the other replacements, so I cannot comment on them from that perspective. I will give some examples:
Sir, but in a neutral sense.
I’d be fine with Sir, honestly. I’m fine with most non-feminine language, including masculine-aligned words like Sir. Other people will not feel the same way. It’s better to ask how you should address someone than gravely offend or misgender them because "a nonbinary person said..."
HOW TO ADDRESS A GROUP:
Hello/ Welcome/ Thank you...
You all or All of you
Those in attendance, those here today
People of (Organization or Event)
Then there's the more modern and informal:
Guys, gals, nonbinary pals (very informal, to only be used with friends or in a casual setting)
Ladies, theydies, & gentlemen (same)
“Ladies, theydies, & gentlemen” can pose a problem because "theydies" is femby (femme enby associated word). Be mindful, and never assume someone’s gender based on presentation. There's also “gentlethem.” I'd personally use something that addresses all people in one clean, concise word like "friends” or “attendees.”
Some people on social media use “you guise” as an alternative to “you guys.” Please, do not do this. "You guise" is extremely triggering as this is a homophone and not a nonbinary or genderless alternative. It’s also an example of lazy activism. “Guise” versus “guys” reveals an underlying lack of empathy for the nonbinary and trans-spectrum community. We see when people merely want to take shortcuts instead of truly changing their ways of thinking and acting in a binary fashion. It hurts. It honestly does.
Now, I had a question concerning what agents and editors think of genderless language. I cannot speak for any editors or agents outside my own. My agent, Deidre Knight, has never discouraged or told me not to use more than two binary pronouns in a manuscript. I’ve never written a manuscript for her that didn’t use at least three pronouns and have at least three genders. The one she's reading now has eight genders, four pronouns, and over ten sexualities identified on the page. We don't fear anything queer at The Knight Agency.
When I came out to my agent as genderqueer and explained my pronoun change, I was terrified of how that would affect my budding career. I needn’t be. Deidre's response was amazing. She's been encouraging every step of the way and supports me fully. We have a trust between us when it comes to my queer writing. To my knowledge, editors have never replied negatively to my use of genders outside the binary or genderless language. If anything, the reaction has been positive.
But—and this is a very important factor—I'm writing from the perspective of an OwnVoices author: a genderqueer person who uses a nonbinary pronoun, writes nonbinary pronouns fluently, speaks with genderless or nonbinary language, and understands what it means to not be cis gender. Because I've lived it, I know how to write these topics on an advanced or expert level.
I had another question asking, When do we use nonbinary or genderless language? Always. Always? Always sounds good. A person never knows when they're going to make a difference in the life of someone by using they as a blanket pronoun. More people would like to use nonbinary pronouns but are too afraid of the reaction they’ll get from their parents and peers. I waited longer than I'd liked to make the switch for such a reason. Each time someone called me by my former pronouns, it was like a shallow cut. Then another cut dug was added in the same place. That wound grew deeper and deeper—from a nick to a cut to a gash to a festering laceration. On and on until it felt like I would never be whole again.
Tie a rubber band around your wrist. Each time you are called by a pronoun—in writing or out loud—snap it. By the end of the day, you’ll feel raw. Now imagine if it’d been the wrong pronoun—he for she, they for zie. That rawness wouldn’t be the same. It’d be an internal pain that didn’t go away, day after day. This is why I fight for neutral language. I don’t want the next generation to feel the same pain I did, to experience that gut-wrenching unknowing of, “Can I? Should I? Dare I be myself?”
I am valid. I am worthy. Others don’t have to understand what it is to be trans or nonbinary. But they do have to respect it. Using the correct language is the first step. Take it with me.
If you learned anything from this article, consider donating $3 to my ko-fi name change fund.
Dill Werner is an author of queer fiction for adults and young adults and sensitivity reader. They graduated from the University of South Carolina with degrees in Creative Writing and German Language and Literature. They have taught ESOL in Germany and German in the United States, which wasn’t confusing at all. An advocate for trans* and nonbinary people, they have written about demisexuality for YAPride, have been interviewed on demisexuality for The Daily Dot, and were featured on Culturess’s 20 Nonbinary Creators You Need to Keep An Eye Out For. They live in South Carolina with their spouse and three-toed bunny. You can follow them on Twitter and Instagram. Come for the cute bunny pictures, stay for the discussion on gender and asexuality.