For many years, the use of personal pronouns has become the topic of much controversy and discourse. However, there’s no denying that pronouns are an essential part of grammar to identify yourself and others. In an increasingly inclusive world, we have come to realise that pronouns like “he” and “she” are not enough to express the spectrum of gender identities.

Gendered grammar

Some languages like French and Spanish categorise nouns as “masculine”, “feminine” and sometimes “neuter”. This is known as grammatical gender and can be seen when words related to the noun inflect (change their form) to agree with the noun’s gender. Depending on the language or word, the association can be based on the meaning of the noun or can be completely arbitrary.

Modern English no longer uses grammatical gender but gender is still very much built into our lexicon, as seen with third-person pronouns. However, the genders associated with these pronouns are conventionally limited to just male (he/him/his) and female (she/her/hers). This doesn’t really accommodate people who identify with a gender outside of the male-female binary or move between both genders fluidly. As such, the use of “gender-neutral” pronouns is a reflection of how gender is more of a spectrum than a binary.

The singular “they”

One of the most common gender-neutral pronouns is “they/them”. It is also one that is most rife with controversy as many argue that these are plural pronouns and it is “ungrammatical” to use them singularly. On the contrary, they/them is used to refer to unknown individuals in many situations — and we don’t even realise it most of the time.

The use of the singular “they” seems like a modern phenomenon but in fact, it has quite a history. Famous writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen used it to reference a person of unspecified or unknown gender. At some point in the 18th century, the use of the male pronoun “he” started being used generically to refer to both males and females. Some believe that this word choice stems from the androcentric view that men are the default gender.

Creating your own pronouns

As its name suggests, neo-pronouns are new gender-neutral pronouns that go beyond the usual personal pronouns in English, albeit less common within the LGBT+ community. Some common examples include “xe/xem”, “fae/faer” and “ze/zir”. These pronouns can give non-binary people a lot more autonomy in choosing a pronoun that best represents their identity. Despite being “new”, early forms of neo-pronouns were used from as early as the 1840s. One prominent example was The Sacramento Bee newspaper using “hir” for 25 years from the 1920s to the 40s.

Given its arbitrariness, neo-pronouns can easily be abused. There have been cases of public figures using random words and turning them into neo-pronouns as a joke, which undermines the people who use these pronouns to identify themselves. A recent case of this is British Internet personality Oli London, who became controversial for having multiple plastic surgery procedures to look like BTS member Jimin. Oli came out as “transracial Korean” and non-binary in 2021 with the pronouns they/them and the neo-pronouns kor/ean and ji/min. Many Kpop fans address Oli only by their they/them pronouns but refuse to accept their neo-pronouns as it is viewed as insulting to Koreans and Jimin himself.

Different combinations

Some people might choose to use more than one pronoun to identify themselves. They might interchangeably use 2 or more pronouns or use either one in different situations. Some people might place their pronouns in order of priority, with the default one placed first. Others don’t have any particular preferences and will accept any pronoun when addressed. In even rarer cases, some people choose to not have any pronouns at all!

When meeting these people for the first time, you can first observe how they refer to themselves in front of others. Whenever in doubt, it’s always best to respectfully ask which pronouns they prefer and in which contexts.

Over the years, pronouns have shifted from simply grammatical words to a marker of personal identity, which is why many social media sites like Instagram and LinkedIn now allow users to include pronouns in their bios. Finding the right pronouns to express one’s gender identity accurately can be extremely empowering and affirming. This is why it is important to respect one another’s pronouns and address them correctly, even when the other party is not physically present.

by Lydia Tan