What are non-binary pronouns?
Well, let’s start with binary pronouns. Binary pronouns are the pronouns that correspond with the binary genders of male and female. Women use she/her/hers, and men use he/him/his.
She is very nice. It belongs to her. It is hers.
He is very nice. It belongs to him. It is his.
If someone has a binary gender – man or woman, boy or girl, etc – using the correct binary pronouns to refer to them is the right way to acknowledge and interact with their gender.
If someone is not a man or a woman, though, binary pronouns may not be the correct fit.
Non-binary genders are genders that don’t adhere to the strict male/female split. They include genders like genderqueer (partially of multiple genders), gender fluid (different gender depending on the day), agender (no gender at all), among others. And using binary pronouns like “he” and “she” aren’t necessarily going to be the right fit for someone who isn’t a man or a woman.
So what are the correct* pronouns to use for non-binary folks?
Well, it depends on the person. Just like you couldn’t say “all binary people use she/her/hers pronouns,” because it excludes all men, you can’t say “all non-binary people use _____ pronouns,” because non-binary encompasses many, many gender identities. There are a number of pronouns that non-binary folks use, and you have to ask individual non-binary folks what pronouns they use in order to gender them correctly.
That being said, there are a few common pronoun sets that are used quite widely with non-binary people: neopronouns and singular they.
“Neopronouns”, or new pronouns. They were developed by non-binary people, to describe their own genders. The three I see the most often are “zie/hir/hirs”, “xe/xem/xyr”, and “ey/em/eir”, but there are dozens that I’ve seen used online and in person.
Zie is very nice. It belongs to hir. It is hirs.
Xe is very nice. It belongs to xem. It is xyrs
Ey is very nice. It belongs to em. It is eirs.
Why would someone use a neopronoun? Well, my question is, why not? If you’re raised in a binary society, the world is constantly telling you that you have to pick one specific gender from a choice list of two. They only give you two choices for gender, two choices for pronouns, and two choices for lived experiences. But we know that doesn’t fit everyone – there are never just two of anything! So when people realize that their gender is unusual or unique, it stands to reason that the pronouns they use to refer to themselves are unusual or unique – just like their gender.
Neopronouns can take some getting used to, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valid. If you can remember someone’s name, and their cat’s name, and their address, or favorite kind of pizza, you can remember their pronouns. We add pieces of information about people we know to our mental rolodex all the time – new pronouns that we aren’t used to can be part of that information.
The most common pronouns used by non-binary folks is the singular they: they/them/theirs. While many non-binary folks use neopronouns, many, many, many more use singular they. Why do non-binary people do this? Well, singular they is gender neutral and is already widely and commonly used by English speakers, so it’s pretty easy to pick up – you’re definitely already doing it without even realizing it!
They are very nice. It belongs to them. It is theirs.
(I frequently see people trying to grammatically treat singular they like singular he or she, but that’s just a recipe for a headache. “They is very nice” isn’t how it works for plural they, and isn’t how it works for singular they.)
The biggest issue with singular they is people insisting that it’s ungrammatical. There are two responses, both valid, to that insistence:
First of all, that’s not correct – singular they has been used for centuries in religious texts, Shakespeare, classic literature, etc. Singular they is also extremely common in day to day speech to refer to a person whose gender we don’t know. “Someone left their scarf behind at the party!” or “That driver’s a jerk – they just cut me off!” We absolutely don’t use “he or she” every single time we don’t know someone’s gender – singular they is common, practical, and already being used. If we’re willing to use it to refer to someone whose gender we don’t know, we should all be willing to use it for someone whose gender we *do* know – a non-binary gender. I use singular they in all of my posts – every single one of them. I gather you haven’t ever noticed my lack of grammar, because it’s common and understandable.
Secondly, anyone who prioritizes the intangible concept of grammar over respecting a person’s pronouns is an asshole. Sorry, I don’t make the rules, I just tell it how it is. If you’re more concerned with something you learned in third grade than with calling people by the words they use, you’re an asshole.
Non-binary people use neopronouns or singular they as a way to acknowledge within themselves that neither masculine nor feminine pronouns are the correct fit for their gender experience. It can feel so validating to know that the people around you respect your gender, and that they truly accept the person that you are.
Generally, we only use pronouns when we’re talking *about* someone, and not when we’re talking *with* them. So using the correct pronouns to gender someone involves keeping their gender in mind and respecting them when they’re not even around. If you only use someone’s correct pronouns when you’re face to face with them, but you misgender them when talking about them, you’re not being a good person.
If you misgender someone, apologize ONCE, and make a personal commitment to try harder in the future. Do not beat your breast and rend your clothes and sob and beg for forgiveness, because then you’re making the slip-up about YOUR pain, not the pain of the person you’ve misgendered. Say, “shoot, I’m sorry. I meant _____” and move on in the conversation.
It can be tough to wrap your head around non-binary pronouns, but you need to try your best to respect people, no matter how difficult it is to you. That’s part of the price for being a good person, is putting in the work. And you can definitely do it.
*I say “correct pronouns” and not “preferred pronouns” because it isn’t just a preference, it’s a fact. I don’t *prefer* she/her pronouns, I use them because my gender is woman. When we ask what people’s “preferred” pronouns are, we’re essentially asking them as if we have a choice to honor a desire, rather than an obligation to acknowledge a fact.