Gender-neutral pronouns to be inclusive in English

Gender-neutral pronouns to be inclusive in English

by Alison Maciejewski Cortez

Updated May 3, 2022

Pronouns are words we use to talk about a person. Have you seen people writing pronouns “she/her” or “they/them” after their name on social media? Some people don’t want to be referred to as “he” or “she” and prefer pronouns without gender. Today we’ll share why this is important and how to use gender-neutral language in English.

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Why use gender-neutral language?

The first thing to know about gender-neutral language is that it’s nothing new. English has used gender-neutral grammar and vocabulary for centuries. 

Second, we recognize that languages evolve over time. Words are borrowed or invented as needed. Did you know the word ‘robot’ comes from the Czech language? Changing and inventing words to fit society happens in many languages. It always has. That’s the beauty and power of language. 

How inclusive language evolves

The basic evolution of neutral pronouns will be familiar to you. “He” used to be the default.

  • If a student is ill, he needs a doctor’s note.

English-speaking societies came to consider this phrasing sexist. Women make up half of the population, including students. The default human is not a man. Nowadays, we include women using the phrases “he or she” or “his or her.” 

  • If a student is ill, he or she needs a note.

That gets cumbersome after a few sentences. Enter a neutral pronoun “they” to refer to a single person.

  • If a student is ill, they need a note.

For native English speakers, this sounds familiar. It has been in common usage for hundreds of years. It’s called the “singular indefinite pronoun.”

Trans and gender non-conforming people

Transgender and gender non-conforming are adjectives for people whose gender identity doesn’t match the sex they were assigned at birth. Their existence in society is also nothing new. 

It’s important to validate and recognize trans and gender non-conforming people by using their correct pronouns and gender-neutral language in English. It says, “we see you and you exist.” That is powerful for the LGBT+ community.

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What are gender-neutral pronouns?

So, what are gender-neutral pronouns we can use? Let’s start with the basics. A personal pronoun is a word we use in place of a person or name.

This table shows words to use instead of “Alison” to speak about me. Some fit my gender. Some don’t. 

Gender neutral?SubjectiveObjectivePossessiveReflexive
sheherhersherself
hehimhishimself
youyouryoursyourself
theythemtheirsthemself
zezir/hirzirs/hirszirself/hirself
xexemxyrsxemself
Name(Alison)Name’s(Alison’s)Name’s(Alison’s)Name’s self (Alison’s self)

Check out a more exhaustive list of gender-neutral pronouns that are evolving as needed. 

How do I ask someone about their pronouns?

Create an open environment. Bring it up by sharing your pronouns first. 

  • One-on-one: “I’m Alison. I go by “she/her” pronouns. What about you?”
  • In a group: “Let’s go around and share names and pronouns. I’m Alison, my pronouns are “she/her/ella”.

This encourages everyone to share. If they don’t want to share their pronouns, that’s ok too. When in doubt you can always use a person’s name. 

If you make a mistake and use the wrong pronoun, it’s ok. Just correct yourself and offer a quick apology. There’s no need to make a big deal out of it.

How to use gender-neutral pronouns

Using gender-neutral pronouns is easy! Once you’ve shared politely and know someone’s pronouns, you can speak about them like this:

  • They will introduce the idea themself.
  • Ze will introduce the idea zirself.
  • Xe will introduce the idea xemself.
  • Alison will introduce the idea Alison’s self.

Gender-neutral language examples

There are other ways we can use gender-neutral language in our everyday lives. Here are some tips on what to say:

Say Do not say 🚫
Friends and colleaguesLadies and gentlemen
Yes, pleaseYes sir/yes ma’am/yes miss
The guest over there.The woman over there.
The person in the red shirt.The man in the red shirt.
Excuse me, friend?Excuse me, miss?
Hello, are you Alison Maciejewski Cortez?Hello, are you Ms. Maciejewski Cortez?

Words matter

Words matter. When we make a point to use gender-neutral pronouns and language inclusivity, we help marginalized people feel welcome. Take the initiative when introducing yourself and you will get the opportunity to learn and use gender-neutral pronouns for others.

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Alison Maciejewski Cortez is Chilean-American, born and raised in California. She studied abroad in Spain, has lived in multiple countries, and now calls Mexico home. She believes that learning how to order a beer in a new language reveals a lot about local culture. Alison speaks English, Spanish, and Thai fluently and studies Czech and Turkish. Her copywriting business takes her around the world and she is excited to share language tips as part of the Lingoda team. Follow her culinary and cultural experiences on Twitter.

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