To anyone familiar with the grammatical structure of standard English, you probably recognize what a pronoun is. Mostly, you may think of I, you, me, ours, they, him, her, us. It also includes things like it, this, those, and that. However, pronouns are not just a feature of language; they are also personal.
Personal pronouns is a concept denoting a pronoun set consistently used by an individual person. You likely use these and don’t know it. Maybe you are used to being referred to as he or him, or, if you identify as a girl, you might use she or her. You know that which pronouns you use depend on the person you’re talking about; Jane would be identified differently from Michael. You may even correct people when they call your cat, Mr. Whiskers, a ‘she‘ when you know he is a ‘he.’ This is an example of personal pronouns.
Though you may not think about it very much, a person’s personal pronouns are not always what you would expect them to be. Many people, whether they don’t conform to traditional gender presentation or perhaps do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, use pronouns you might not assume for their appearance, or even name. Sometimes, this includes gender-neutral pronouns.
If you are an English speaker, you already use one set of gender-neutral pronouns: they, them, and theirs is a pronoun set used to refer either to a plural group of people, or a singular person of indeterminate gender. You might tell your mother that the cashier asked for ID; she could respond, not knowing a gender, “Did you give it to them?” It is, in fact, often good policy to revert to this generic neutral set of pronouns for anyone whose personal pronouns you do not personally know.
However, sometimes a person may use one or more set of gender-neutral pronouns you do not recognize. Some examples of these are ey, em, and eirs; ze, hir, and hirs; or xe, xem, and xyrs, among others. The list is endless and constantly expanding, and can even feature a subset called neopronouns, in which one might use invented pronouns based on a concept or existing noun (fae, faer, and faers or kit, kit, and kits are examples of this). A list of popular third-person gender-neutral pronoun sets (and how they are used) can be found on Wiktionary, though it is by no means exhaustive.
Why do people use gender-neutral, invented, or neopronouns? There are a variety of personal reasons that may differ for each individual. Frequently, though, the motivation is related to gender. Transgender and nonbinary individuals can often find that their personal gender identity is best recognized through a nontraditional personal pronoun set. Though this may be introduced in queer or transgender communities as “preferred pronouns,” someone’s personal pronouns are not really a preference; they are a necessity. Like you wouldn’t call someone by a name that is not theirs, to call someone by pronouns they don’t use (or to refuse to use the pronouns they do) is an act of disrespect. However, one of the most frequent causes of misuse of pronouns is ignorance or misunderstanding, not malice. For that reason, I encourage you to check out my Trans 101 post for the benefit of better understanding.
If you were directed to this post from my About page, or if you are still confused on how a set of nontraditional gender-neutral pronouns might be used, I’ll explain my own personal use of pronouns. As a person who identifies as nongendered, I prefer the use of the pronouns xe, xem, and xyrs (though the standard they, them, and theirs is also okay). Here is a basic chart identifying what version of pronouns is used in what sentence function, with my pronouns (xe/xem) at the bottom:
Nominative (subject) | Accusative (object) | Possessive
I ran. | Help me? | That’s mine!
You came! | I like you. | Is that yours?
Is he tall? | Get him! | This is his.
They are sweet. | Is that them? | It’s their turn!
Xe is here! | I see xem. | Are you xyr friend?
So, if you were referring to this webpage’s author (that’s me), you might say: “Xe created this website. I can see xyr hard work, and I’m impressed by xem.“
For more information about pronouns, check out my Resources page.