Beyond "He" or "She": The Complete Guide to Using Gender Neutral Pronouns in 2024

Pronouns are an essential part of how we communicate and interact with each other every day. Yet for many people, the most commonly used pronouns – "he" and "she" – don‘t accurately reflect their gender identity.

Enter gender neutral pronouns: words like "they," "ze," and "xe" that allow us to refer to individuals without assuming or specifying their gender. As awareness of nonbinary and transgender identities continues to grow, so too does the important conversation around inclusive language.

Whether you‘re a workplace leader looking to create a welcoming environment for people of all genders, or simply want to better understand how to support nonbinary friends and colleagues, this complete guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools to use gender neutral pronouns confidently and respectfully.

Why Gender Neutral Pronouns Matter

First, let‘s unpack why using someone‘s correct pronouns is so important. For individuals whose gender falls outside the binary of male and female, being referred to with gendered pronouns like "he" or "she" can range from uncomfortable to downright distressing.

As nonbinary writer and activist Jacob Tobia explains, "When someone uses the wrong pronoun for me, it‘s like a little stab to my gut. It sends the message that they don‘t see me as I see myself, that they don‘t recognize my existence."

Using gender neutral pronouns signals that we respect and acknowledge the wide diversity of gender identities beyond just "man" and "woman." It‘s a way of affirming that we see nonbinary individuals as they are and are committed to creating an inclusive environment where everyone can feel welcome and valued.

This is especially critical in the workplace, where feeling unable to show up authentically can impact everything from mental wellbeing to productivity and job satisfaction. A 2021 survey by McKinsey found that LGBTQ+ employees who are out at work are 1.4 times more likely to feel very included in their workplace compared to those who aren‘t.

But the impact of normalizing gender neutral pronouns extends even further. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to inclusive language actively reduces prejudice against transgender and nonbinary people. Simply reading a short paragraph about a person using "they" pronouns led participants to express more positive attitudes toward trans individuals in general, according to a 2022 study published in Scientific American.

In other words, the more we integrate gender neutral pronouns into our everyday interactions, the more we collectively contribute to a society that embraces all gender identities. As Arun Nevader, Getty Image‘s Global Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion said on the Creative Insights podcast: "The words we choose have power. Using inclusive language is an act of ‘micro-allyship‘ we can all participate in."

Understanding and Using Different Gender Neutral Pronouns

So what exactly are the different gender neutral pronouns, and how do you use them? While "they/them" have become the most widely recognizable thanks to high profile nonbinary celebrities like Demi Lovato and Jonathan Van Ness, there are actually a variety of options that individuals may choose for themselves.

Here are some of the most common gender neutral pronouns and how to use them in a sentence:

Pronoun Set Nominative (Subject) Objective (Object) Possessive Determiner Possessive Reflexive
They/Them They Them Their Theirs Themself
Ze/Zir Ze Zir Zir Zirs Zirself
Ze/Hir Ze Hir Hir Hirs Hirself
Xe/Xem Xe Xem Xyr Xyrs Xemself
Ey/Em Ey Em Eir Eirs Eirself

Example sentences:

  • They/Them: "Kim is coming to the event. I‘m excited to see them."
  • Ze/Zir: "Alex shared zir new idea in the meeting. It was brilliant!"
  • Ze/Hir: "Sam is running a little late. Ze will be here soon."
  • Xe/Xem: "Devon always brings xyr own mug to work. Xe takes xyr coffee very seriously."
  • Ey/Em: "Addison forgot eir notebook, so I lent em mine."

Some people may use these pronouns exclusively, while others use them interchangeably with pronouns like "she" or "he." The most important thing is to use the correct pronouns for each individual person.

If you‘re unsure of what pronouns to use for someone, the best course of action is simply to ask politely, and then consistently use the pronouns they indicate. You could say:

  • "I don‘t want to make any assumptions. What pronouns do you use?"
  • "I want to make sure I‘m referring to you correctly. Can you remind me of your pronouns?"
  • "Let‘s go around and introduce ourselves with our names and pronouns. I‘m Kamal and I use he/him."

Avoid putting someone on the spot in a group setting – instead, make space for everyone to voluntarily share their pronouns if they feel comfortable. Many organizations are normalizing this by encouraging (but not requiring) employees to list pronouns on name tags, email signatures, and company directories.

Handling Mistakes with Grace

As with learning any new skill, there may be slip ups along the way as you build the habit of using someone‘s correct pronouns. What‘s most important is how you handle and learn from those mistakes.

If you catch yourself using the wrong pronoun for someone in the moment, quickly apologize and correct yourself, then move on with the conversation. It could sound like:

  • "Her idea was – sorry, their idea was really innovative."
  • "Oh I‘m sorry, I meant to say ‘xe‘! Let me try that again."

Avoid over-apologizing or making it about your own guilty feelings, which places the burden on the person you‘ve misgendered to comfort you. A brief and sincere apology shows respect without derailing the interaction.

In cases where you realize you‘ve been using the wrong pronouns for someone more consistently, it warrants a private conversation to acknowledge the impact and commit to doing better. Focus on your actions and responsibility rather than the person‘s identity. You could say:

"I wanted to apologize for using the wrong pronouns for you in the past. I realize that was disrespectful and hurtful. I‘m committed to using your correct pronouns moving forward, and please let me know if I slip up again. Thank you for your patience as I adjust to this change."

Remember, it‘s not the responsibility of transgender and nonbinary people to teach you or answer invasive questions about their identity and journey. Educate yourself proactively with resources like this guide, and be open to correction and feedback.

Creating Inclusive Environments

For organizations and leaders, creating a culture that embraces gender diversity requires proactive and ongoing work. Some key places to start:

  1. Integrate pronoun sharing into everyday workplace interactions. Encourage employees to list pronouns on company profiles, email signatures, and introductions in meetings. Always keep it optional.

  2. Audit your policies, benefits, and facilities to ensure they are inclusive of all genders. Do your healthcare plans cover gender affirming care? Are there gender neutral restroom options? Do your hiring and HR systems allow people to self-identify beyond binary gender options?

  3. Provide training and resources on gender diversity and inclusion for all employees, especially people managers. This should cover key concepts and terminology as well as practical guidance for using pronouns and supporting trans and nonbinary team members. Make sure your leadership is vocally supportive.

  4. Believe people when they share their pronouns and gender identity. Never question someone‘s identity or treat gender neutral pronouns as a passing trend. For many, these words are a deeply important representation of their authentic self.

When in doubt, follow the lead of the individual themself and mirror the language they use to talk about their own identity. Update your records and inform others of someone‘s correct pronouns to help ease their burden of having to constantly explain or correct people.

The Evolving Nature of Language

As the conversation around gender neutral pronouns has gained prominence, so too has the linguistic debate over their "grammatical correctness." Critics often push back against using "they" as a singular pronoun, insisting it is a plural word only.

However, language is not set in stone; it is a living, evolving tool that has always adapted to the needs of those who use it. Using "they" to refer to an individual has a long history dating back to Shakespeare and Chaucer. Merriam-Webster officially added the singular "they" to the dictionary in 2019, with the definition: "used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary."

Even more recent is the flourishing of neopronouns like "xe/xem" and "ze/zir." These new words fill a need for pronouns completely removed from "he" or "she" that still efficiently communicate meaning. While less common than "they/them," neopronouns are becoming increasingly recognized, from the New York Times to the Oxford English Dictionary.

"Language is all about meaning-making," says linguist and author Dr. Archie Bongiovanni. "No one gets to decide what‘s ‘right‘ or ‘wrong‘ other than the communities using those words to make meaning."

Ultimately, the minor grammatical inconvenience of adjusting to gender neutral pronouns pales in comparison to the very real impact of affirming someone‘s identity and humanity. As M Lanza, a nonbinary software engineer, puts it: "My pronouns are not a preference or a trend – they‘re a core part of who I am. When people use them correctly, it tells me that I‘m valued and seen in that space."

The Path Forward

Gender neutral pronouns are not going away; in fact, their use will likely only continue to expand as our collective understanding of gender identity grows. For individuals and organizations alike, embracing these words is a powerful way to show up as an ally and contribute to a more just and inclusive world.

Start by educating yourself, practicing integrating gender neutral pronouns into your vocabulary, and pushing for structural changes in your workplace and community. Above all, listen to and amplify the voices of nonbinary people as the experts on their own lived experiences.

Together, we can create a future where people of all genders feel respected, celebrated, and free to exist authentically as themselves. And it can start with something as small as changing the way you speak.

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