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.
And again:“God send everyone their heart’s desire.”
— William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Act III, Scene 4
They 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 3
They 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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 xanderthegreatest and his friend Taylor for their advisory role in the creation of this post. We couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you!