How and why do I use 'they' pronouns? Here's a guide to using gender-neutral pronouns
In December, Merriam-Webster declared the gender-neutral pronoun “they” to be its word of the year for 2019. For many, the right way to use “they” and the meaning behind singular “they” feels totally comfortable. For just as many, however, “they” might feel tricky or confusing, even with the best intentions. Luckily, the basics are pretty simple!
Everyone is different. An obvious statement, but when it comes to gender identity, pronouns, and sexual orientation, this sentiment is sometimes the clearest explanation available. It’s ultimately about personal identity and respecting each individual as they share their needs with you. Pronouns won’t be the same for everyone, so it can be helpful to see pronouns as a person-by-person basis instead of a collective definition.
1. How do I use they/them singular pronouns in a sentence?
This is probably the biggest point of confusion and the easiest to answer! It can quickly become a habit to use the correct pronouns for someone. Here are some examples of what it can look like.
“Did you remember to give Ben back their lunchbox?”
“I’m going to check on Amanda; they’ve been crying all morning.”
“My boss announced we can close early today for the holiday. They’re the best!”
2. Does this really matter?
Yes! Using the correct pronouns is a way of respecting someone’s humanity. It can be useful to compare it to getting someone’s name right; mistakes happen, but in general, you want to do your due diligence and spell and pronounce someone’s name correctly (as well as remember it), because it shows care and respect for them. Using the correct pronouns (even if you feel confused about the “why”) communicates a similar thoughtfulness and respect.
3. Other than “he” and “she,” is “they” the only option?
Nope! They/them/theirs is the most popular gender-neutral pronoun set, but not the only one. Another popular one is “ze/hir/hirs,” which you pronounce as “zee/here/heres.”
4. This is so strange! I just can’t get over the grammar.
Here’s one way to look at this. We already use singular “they” pretty frequently. When? When we don’t actually know someone’s gender!
Here are a few examples of this.
“Someone left their dirty dishes in the sink! I hope they’ll be back to clean this up.”
“Did someone forget their coat?”
“I hope whoever dropped their coffee got a new one!”
Just apply it the same way when it comes to using a person’s name in the sentence. It’s that simple! Also, the AP Style Guide now recognizes “they” as correct when someone doesn’t identify as male or female. Students at MIT also created this accessible guide to pronouns.
5. How can I figure out if someone uses “they” pronouns?
There’s really no way to figure it out except to listen when they tell you. Some people put their pronouns in their email signature, social media, or professional profile, for example. Another way to approach this is to offer your pronouns when you introduce yourself, which models the behavior for others to repeat it.
Perhaps the biggest example? If someone corrects you and tells you they, actually, use “they” or “ze” instead of “he” or “she,” simply apologize, thank them for telling you, and use the gender-neutral one next time. It’s that simple. But because pronouns are so personal and individual, it has nothing to do with the way someone looks, dresses, or otherwise presents themselves—the only way to know for sure is to hear it from each individual.
Want to learn more about pronouns, non-binary, and transgender identities? Here are some awesome video resources.
Why pronouns matter.
Another perspective on the same question.
What not to say (or ask) to a non-binary person.
The same question and answer setups above, but specifically for transgender people.
And a super moving TED talk from Jarvis (“Lady Jae”) Clark.
And to round things out, another TED talk, this time a deep dive into transitioning, pronouns, and how to be a good ally to transgender people.