Non-Binary People: A Guide to the Pronoun "They"

The pronoun “they/them” is used alone by some non-binary people for whom it is important to be treated without gender connotation. Understanding how to use gender-neutral language correctly and why it is needed.

How can the pronoun “they” be singular?

The English pronoun they in the singular became known to a wide audience in 2015 when the American Dialect Society named it the word of the year. And already in 2019, it was included in the oldest dictionary Merriam-Webster. It is used by non-binary people who are neither feminine nor masculine. Some say about themselves “they” always, others are comfortable alternating different pronouns.

Linguists and activists around the world are promoting gender neutrality in language. This increases the visibility of the non-binary community and allows it to talk about itself. In the English-speaking environment, they in the singular came into use relatively easily. This is partly due to the fact that it was already used to refer to persons whose gender is unknown. The second reason is the very grammatical structure of the language, in which there are no endings for verbs and adjectives. Gender was expressed in pronouns, and it was enough to replace them when mentioning a person in the third person.

Sam Smith, amazing and extremely popular artist, one of the most famous non-binary people in the world.

German articles show that gender and using “they” is hard and confusing. In Russian, there are generic endings, feminizes, and emasculators (also in German), so when using “they” you also need to inflect other words. For most, this is unusual and looks like a mistake. Despite this, non-binary persons use the pronoun “they” both in friendly circles and in everyday life.

Each new acquaintance not only implies coming out but can also begin with an explanation of the rules for using a gender-neutral pronoun. The low prevalence of “they” in the singular, like discrimination, leads to the fact that it is more difficult for non-binary persons to integrate into society. Often, non-binary people tell about themselves only to loved ones and therefore remain invisible.

How to address those who define themselves as “they”, but sometimes use other pronouns themselves

There can be many reasons for this. For example, they do not want everyone to know, that they are a non-binary person. Or they, just like you, grew up in an environment, where it is unusual to use “they” as a singular pronoun, and they themselves are still adapting. Or they deliberately alternate between different pronouns. The expert advises to directly ask the person how to contact him.

Every non-binary person has their own preferences regarding the use of gendered words, and it is also better to ask about this.

Pronouns matter. Pronouns are important. Everyone is valid. She/Her, He/Him, They/Them, Ze/Zim, and many more. Don't be afraid to ask which pronouns someone may prefer.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

So that the pronoun “they” in relation to one person is not confused with an appeal to a group, the expert advises using names or phrases “this person” instead of pronouns. They are used in place of the gendered words “man” and “woman”.

Always ask the person about the exact pronoun and, even if it is something strange and incomprehensible to you, respect him. For many, the pronoun is something insignificant, but for transgender and non-binary people, it is the first sign of recognition and acceptance of their identity. Besides, it would be nice if cisgender people also started asking each other about the correct pronoun.

All non-binary people are very different. They look different, present themselves differently, use different pronouns. Just try to speak neutrally about any person until you know what pronouns they prefer. Even if you rarely interact with non-binary people, when you use this form in colloquial speech, when thinking or writing about someone, it will quickly become a habit.

Anastasia Fetter

Anastasia Fetter