If you’ve been following the latest discourse about gender identity and non-conforming identities then you may have heard about “neopronouns.” If you haven’t heard the term, then perhaps you’ve heard unusual sounding pronouns like “ze/zer” or “xe/xem”. And, if you’re like most people, you’ve probably felt confused about how you would use them.
But don’t fret. Neopronouns may seem confusing at first, but they’re pretty simple once you get a hang of them. In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into the origins and uses of neopronouns, plus provide a list of neopronouns that have gained popularity in recent years.
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What Are Neopronouns?
The word “neopronoun” comes from the term ”neo” which means new and the term “pronoun”, which describes words we use as substitutes for other nouns.
In the English language, personal pronouns – which substitute a person’s proper name – are typically gendered. We have the third person pronouns he/him/his, which we often use for masculine folks, and she/her/hers, which we use for feminine folks. But for non-binary people – people whose identities fall outside the rigid confines of the gender binary – these two sets of pronouns cannot often reflect their gender identity. As such, many non-binary folks tend to favor the gender-neutral pronouns, such as the pronoun set they/them/theirs.
The singular “they” and “them” replace “he/him” or “she/her” in sentences, much in the same way that we use they/them to refer to someone whose gender is unknown. For example, you could say, “Someone left their sweater in the car” or “Someone’s at the door and they’re knocking very loudly”.
However, there are also people who don’t feel completely comfortable or fully represented by they/them/their pronouns. For some, it’s about wanting to differentiate themselves from non-binary people, who have since become associated with they/them/their pronouns. These folks could identify as genderqueer, agender, neutrois, or demiboy/demiboy, for example. But for others, it’s simply about not feeling “at home” in these pronouns. Thus, neopronouns serve as an alternative gender-neutral pronoun set for these kinds of people.
While we can’t provide a definitive neopronouns list – there are way too many out there – we can show you some of the most popular examples.
The above pronouns are formatted to show their subjective/objective/possessive forms, just like with the pronouns they/them/theirs. So if you were to talk about someone who uses xe/xem/xyrs pronouns, you would say something like this:
“I saw Robin today. Xe told me about xyr recent trip to Colorado, where xe went rock climbing with xyr partner Kai. I told xem that if xe ever decided to head out to the Rockies again, xe should definitely check out the Flying Buttress.”
Some people prefer using multiple sets of pronouns. For example, while Robin prefers xe/xem/xyrs pronouns, xyr partner Kai might use ey/em/eirs and she/her/hers pronouns. In this case, it’s best to ask the other person if they have a primary preference. Some people might not have a preference, and don’t mind if you use one or the other more often. Others may like it if you use their pronouns alternately. For example, if you had to introduce Kai to a friend, you could incorporate their multiple pronouns this way, “This is Kai, I met em through Robin. She’s originally from Colorado.”
Why Do People Use Neopronouns?
For many people, gender is simple. You’re either a man or a woman. But for non-binary people, gender is a bit more complex than that. According to the Human Rights Campaign, “non-binary” is an umbrella term describing those who do not identify exclusively as male or female. For non-binary folks, gender is a spectrum upon which you can identify somewhere in the middle, fluctuate between two ends, or even exists outside of it altogether.
Some of the gender identities that fall under the non-binary umbrella include genderqueer, or those who do not conform to the gender roles imposed by the gender binary, agender, or those who identify as having no gender, and genderfluid, or those who have a fluctuating or unfixed gender identity.
So what does this have to do with neopronouns? As mentioned earlier, for many non-binary folks, gendered pronouns may not be enough to encompass their feelings about their gender. For some, even they/them/their pronouns just don’t feel “right”. And so, neopronouns serve as a new and more personalized way to be identified and referred to – without feeling like they are forced to adhere to the gender binary.
Studies have also found that social support for transgender and nonbinary people can significantly improve their mental health.
Remember that transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming youth face a much higher risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation compared with their cisgender peers. Aside from discrimination and gender-based violence, many trans and non-binary people also have to face gender dysphoria, which can be described as immense psychological distress stemming from the feeling of one’s assigned gender at birth not matching their gender identity.
Gender affirming surgery, hormone therapy, and social transitioning, the latter of which includes introducing one’s new pronouns to trusted loved ones, can all help ease this discomfort.
Neopronoun Usage – Then, Now, And Around The World
One of the biggest criticisms against the gender-neutral pronoun the singular “they” is its supposed grammatical incorrectness. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the singular “they” has been found in literature as far back as 1375, and it’s likely that the form has existed in speech for even much longer.
Like the singular “they”, neopronouns aren’t exactly a recent invention either. Throughout history, various people have attempted to coin and popularize indeterminate or gender-neutral pronouns.
William H. Marshall recorded the term “ou”, which could stand-in for “he/she/it”, in 1789. Then, in 1890, James Rogers coined the neopronouns “e/em/es”.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the gender-neutral pronoun “thon” appeared in its Unabridged dictionary from 1934 to 1961. “Thon” is a contraction – a shortened version of the phrase “that one” that was coined by composer and lawyer Charles Crozat Converse in 1858.
In 1970, Mary Orovan was said to create the pronouns “co/co/cos”, while in 1975, Christine Elverson submitted the terms “ey/em/eir” in a local contest.
Finally, we have the “e/em/eirs” neopronouns, which are said to have been created by Michael Spivak in the 1990s.
Though none of these neopronouns stuck around during the time they were coined, they experienced a resurgence of sorts during the height of Tumblr’s popularity. From 2010 to 2014, the microblogging site was at its peak, with millions of users posting daily. Many of those users were LGBTQ+ youth who found community on the site, exchanging ideas about topics like coming out and queer representation in films and TV, as well as reigniting the conversation around neopronouns.
Gender-neutral Pronouns In Other Languages
While English speakers are just wrapping their heads around gender-neutral pronouns, in some languages, pronouns don’t even have gender at all.
In Tagalog, the third-person pronoun “siya” can be used for both “he” and “she”. In Estonian, men and women can both be referred to as “ta”. And in Swahili, “yeye” is used for “he”, “him”, “she”, and “her”.
Meanwhile, there are also other languages around the world that, while inherently gendered, have recently been going through gender-inclusive updates as well.
In Sweden, the term “hen” gained popularity among academics and queer circles in the early 2000s as a way to describe non-binary people. The term, like the singular “they”, met pushback as well. But by 2015, “hen” stamped its place in Swedish culture when it was added to the Swedish dictionary.
In some Spanish-speaking communities, words that would traditionally be gendered (masculine words ended with an “o”, feminine words ended with an “a”) would end with an @ symbol or an “x”. Hence, the terms Latin@ or Latinx.
How To Support People Who Use Neopronouns
Because neopronouns haven’t really crossed over into the mainstream yet, people who use them still experience a lot of pushback – particularly from older, cis, and hetero folks. One of the most common complaints about neopronouns is that there are “too many” to keep track of, and thus “too much of a hassle” to enforce.
But trans and non-binary folks will argue that if you can change how you refer to someone when they either get their PhDs or when they marry and change their last names, then you can probably learn how to refer to someone with their correct pronouns.
If you’re looking to improve your pronoun game and support a friend or a loved one who just introduced their new pronouns, here are 6 tips:
Introduce Your Own Pronouns
One of the easiest ways to be an ally to transgender and non-binary folks? Practice sharing your own personal pronouns when meeting someone new. This normalizes the idea of sharing (and asking for) one’s personal pronouns, and makes it easier for any trans and non-binary people to do so. This is also why more and more people are putting their preferred pronouns in the social media bios.
Do Your Best To Use Someone’s Neopronouns – Even When They’re Not Around
This may sound like common sense, but it’s worth repeating. If someone tells you their neopronouns, make the effort to use them – even when that person is not around. Doing this will give you an opportunity to practice getting used to that person’s pronouns, as well as signal to the other people you’re talking to that it’s important to keep using someone’s preferred pronouns.
Correct Yourself When You Get Them Wrong
Nobody’s perfect. Trans and non-binary people are usually very understanding when someone unintentionally gets their pronouns wrong. If this ever happens to you, simply apologize and correct yourself, then move on quickly. Don’t make a big show of it or make the blunder about yourself.
Correct Other People As Well
Sometimes, people will slip up and use the wrong pronoun for a friend. Other times, someone will intentionally misgender someone to disrespect them. Whatever the situation, find the courage to speak up for your friend or loved one and assert the use of their preferred pronouns. This will show others that it’s not okay to misgender someone, and that this is something that people shouldn’t let slide.
Know When To Use Discretion
Not everyone may want to share their preferred pronouns with everyone, particularly if they are still coming to terms with their gender identity or if they haven’t come out to friends, family, or coworkers yet. If someone hasn’t shared their pronouns yet, don’t confront them about it in front of a big group. Instead, try asking about someone’s pronouns when you can be alone with them. Otherwise, you may inadvertently out someone.
Some people may take some time to figure out which pronouns feel right for them, and so they’ll experiment with various neopronouns. If this happens, be patient and respectful. Don’t complain about how hard it is to keep track of so many pronouns.
When someone considers changing their pronouns, they’re often confronting their complicated feelings about their gender identity as well. This can be a very confusing time, so it’s important that the person has a stable support system.
FAQs About Neopronouns
1. Who can adopt neopronouns?
While neopronouns are more commonly used by non-binary and gender non-conforming people who don’t feel accurately represented by gendered pronouns or the singular “they”, anyone can adopt neopronouns if they feel like it suits them.
2. How do I ask someone for their personal pronouns?
The best way to go about this is by sharing your own preferred pronouns first. This will help make the other person feel more comfortable sharing their pronouns with you. For example, you can introduce yourself like this: “Hi, I’m Spencer. I go by she/her and they/them. How should I refer to you?”
Remember, try to avoid asking for someone’s pronouns when you’re in a group. Not everyone is familiar with the concept or willing to talk about their pronouns, especially if they’re not out yet.
3. Are neopronouns just some woke Gen Z trend?
No. Gender-neutral pronouns have been in existence since the 12th century (and perhaps even longer!) and neopronouns have been around since as early as 1789. Though their popularity has fluctuated throughout the past few centuries, neopronouns are becoming popular again, thanks in large part to the increased acceptance and visibility of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people.
4. What do I do if I get someone’s pronouns wrong?
If you ever misgender someone by accident, here’s what you can do:
- Apologize: And do it quickly. The moment you realize you’ve used the incorrect pronouns, make an effort to correct yourself.
- Follow up in private: Some people can feel really hurt by misgendering. If you want to reassure your friend that you made an honest mistake, do so privately. And remember, try not to make it about yourself and how you feel. Instead, ask your friend if you can do anything for them, and assure them that you’ll be more mindful of their pronouns moving forward.
- Practice: If you want to do right by your friends, commit to practicing saying their pronouns out loud. You could also try writing their pronouns on a piece of paper.
5. Can I make up my own neopronouns?
While there are many pre-existing neopronouns to choose from, it is also possible to make up your own. Nounself pronouns are a type of neopronouns that are derived from already existing words or themes, including animal themes, space themes, and fantasy themes. For example, some people prefer to be called “fae/faer/faers” or “bun/buns/buns”. Nounself pronouns gained popularity on Tumblr around the mid-2010s.
It should be noted that not everyone in the LGBTQ+ community agrees with the usage of nounself pronouns. Some believe that encouraging the use of nounself pronouns can make it harder to convince people to take gender-neutral pronouns seriously. Whether or not this is true is still up for debate.
The Bottom Line
As more and more people become comfortable identifying as non-binary or gender non-conforming, we’re bound to see more people using neopronouns.
If you have trans and non-binary friends and you want them to feel validated and supported in their decision to live as their true, authentic selves, make the effort to respect and use their preferred pronouns!