Beyond They/Them: What Are Neopronouns?

While standing in line for the Spaceship Earth ride at EPCOT a few years ago, Hex, now 28, scrolled through Twitter to help pass time, pausing to look at “ze/zis” listed in someone’s bio. Hex’s wife explained what that meant, that those were an example of neopronouns — a new category of pronouns that are used in place of she/her, he/him, and they/them. Hex’s initial reaction “wasn’t the kindest.”

After coming out as transgender in 2014, Hex initially used he/him pronouns in order to avoid the inevitable conversations about the singular use of “they,” even though that didn’t feel like a good fit either. “I don’t really vibe with gender at all,” Hex tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t feel like I’m anything. I’m the culmination of my lived experience.” 

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Learning about neopronouns that day at EPCOT gave Hex a lot to think about. “In my mind, I had struggled with my identity for so long, and I couldn’t even use they/them for fear of being harassed, and now people are just making it up?” Hex explains. “But after an hour or so, and lots of furious Googling, I was mad for a different reason: Because I really liked the ‘made-up’ pronouns.” 

Now, Hex uses xe/xir pronouns. “They allow me to feel like, yes, I have masculine and feminine sides to me, but I’m also almost like an alien as far as the world of gender goes,” xe says. “It allows me to actually feel like I’m being true to myself when all other labels didn’t fit.” 

And Hex isn’t alone. With greater awareness and increasing acceptance of gender identities beyond simply “male” and “female,” people are opting to use pronouns that reflect that nuance. The first to gain traction in English (at least in the 21st century) was the singular use of “they/them,” which the Associated Press added to its Stylebook in 2017, and two years later, was named Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year.

But the use of the singular “they” still limited people to three pronoun categories, despite there being far more gender identities. And that’s where neopronouns like xe/xir, ze/zir, and fae/faer come in. Here’s what to know about neopronouns in the English language, including a look back at their long history, and the crucial role they play in allowing people to express their genuine identity. 

Understanding neopronouns

If this is the first time you’re hearing about neopronouns, the whole thing may seem a bit confusing, and possibly overwhelming. But given that we’re constantly learning new words — or new meanings for old words — it’s something we’re absolutely capable of doing. “There’s no way explaining a ‘bitcoin’ is easier than just using someone’s pronouns,” says JP, a 22-year-old Texan who uses xe/xir pronouns. “Neopronouns aren’t something that will go away anytime soon, because they fill in a societal need for gender-neutral pronouns that has been long overdue,” xe tells Rolling Stone.

According to Florence Ashley, a legal scholar, bioethicist, and doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, part of the challenge of getting people to use and accept neopronouns is the immediate negative reaction some have to new words. “To my eyes, something being new is not at all bad,” they explain. “On the contrary, we live in a world that thrives on — and even fetishizes — innovation, so surely, we don’t really think that something new is bad.” 

Predictably, there is some pushback against the use of neopronouns — though it isn’t limited to cisgender folks. “Even in the trans community there are people who think that those who use neopronouns do so to be obstinate, or co-opt a movement for attention — I know, because I had those thoughts before I researched it, and then eventually started using them,” Hex explains. 

And Ashley confirms that generally that’s not the case. “People aren’t like, ‘Oh, let me pick a difficult pronoun just to mess with people,” they tell Rolling Stone. “The reality is that nonbinary people bend over backwards to accommodate society — oftentimes, for instance, offering multiple sets of pronouns for people to use to accommodate them to their existence.”

So when people use neopronouns, Ashley says, it’s not them being precious — “it’s literally them saying, ‘This is so important that I’m willing to wade through all the bullshit of people telling me constantly that my gender identity isn’t real, because it’s the only thing that makes me feel like I’m being understood in any kind of real way.’”

Neopronouns aren’t actually new

Although Ashley says that most neopronouns tend to be gender-neutral because of how they develop, “in theory, there’s nothing preventing someone from inventing new pronouns that are masculine, for instance.” And attempts to find alternatives to she/he pronouns are nothing new, says Kelsey Pacha, an LGBTQ+ cultural awareness educator and board president of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves

“Some of these conversations go back to the 1300s,” he tells Rolling Stone, noting that since then, English speakers have attempted to introduce more than 200 gender-neutral pronouns. One of them — the singular, gender-neutral pronoun “thon” — was first introduced in 1858, and thought to be a contraction of “that one.” Though it did gain some traction when it was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1934, “thon” was out again by 1961, and never really caught on.

But what most people don’t realize, Pacha says, is that in addition to the pursuit of more inclusive pronouns, the concept of gender identities beyond male and female also has a long history. “There have been third-gender categories in cultures on every continent going back thousands of years — and recordings of that,” he explains. But like so many other aspects of identity, they were a casualty of European colonization.

Despite the name of the period, Pacha says that the shift toward a more scientific mindset that occurred during the Enlightenment resulted in “the view that there’s males and females, and nothing else.” This 18th-century version of “science” was more concerned about a person’s genitals than their gender identity, and quick to diagnose anyone who fell outside the rigid male/female categories with some type of mental or physical illness. And while this concept of two distinctive genders based solely on anatomy is as outdated as many of the era’s other theories — think a “scientific” classification and hierarchy of races —  it has remained the dominant approach since.

Yes, neopronouns are ‘grammatically correct’ (but that’s not the point)

While the concept isn’t new, the word “neopronoun” itself is relatively recent. “It’s been used in the past five to 10 years [within queer and trans groups in academia] as an umbrella term that encompasses the history of attempts to make a gender-neutral pronoun in English, and recognizes the nonbinary gender-identity piece,” Pacha explains. “As far as when it started to emerge more in the public consciousness — 2017 was a big year.”

Gradually, the traditional arbiters of the language are becoming more inclusive. While the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) doesn’t currently have entries for the words “neopronoun” or “nonbinary pronoun,” Fiona McPherson, a senior editor with the OED, says that both are “on their radar” and are being tracked “for possible future inclusion.” There are, however, entries for “zir” (added in March 2019) and “ze” (added in June 2018). 

As with all additions to the OED, the inclusion of other neopronouns will largely depend on evidence that a word has gotten to the point where “it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood,” McPherson says, noting that the dictionary may reconsider a word after seeing a spike in usage. “In the case of ‘ze,’ for example, we had evidence stretching back as far as 1864, although use becomes more visible and sustained from the 1980s or 1990s onwards,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Our earliest evidence for ‘zir’ is from 1993.”

Things are moving slightly faster online. For example, Grammarly — an artificial intelligence-based writing assistant — began supporting neopronouns including xe/xem, ze/zir, ve/ver, and ney/nem earlier this year, based on feedback from users. Facebook has allowed users to select from more than 50 gender identities since 2014, and Instagram followed suit in May 2021. But there’s still a long way to go before people who use neopronouns are able to do so formally, across all aspects of their life. Perhaps most notably, the 2020 census offered only two pronoun options — sending the message that people who don’t identify as male or female literally don’t count. 

The harms of maintaining the status quo

After reading a book in which the characters use xe/xir pronouns, SJ, 30, has started experimenting with them — though still currently uses they/them. “Those neopronouns feel more like me than they/them, but I’m already having a hard time getting people to use they/them, so honestly, trying out anything a little more ‘unusual’ feels like a lost cause,” SJ, who lives in Seattle, tells Rolling Stone. “Honestly, I’m not wild about [they/them pronouns], but it seems to be the best we’ve got so far, and the easiest one for cis people to wrap their heads around, because it’s already a pronoun we use every day in the English language.”

In fact, SJ says, about 80 percent of their decision to use they/them pronouns was to make things easier for other people — “which is honestly kind of fucked up, because it’s a decision that should be about what’s best for me, not other people.” It ends up being what they call “an unhappy compromise” for everyone, “because people still chafe at calling me they/them, and I’m not exactly thrilled with it either. They think they’re doing me a favor, and I think I’m doing them a favor, and we both end up resentful about it.”

But using a person’s requested pronouns is about more than being respectful — it’s also making a conscious decision to avoid causing them psychological stress, Pacha explains. “I think most people can understand that in the same way that someone consistently mispronouncing your name can be harmful,” he says. “Even if at some point you decide to accept it, it bothers you because it’s not reflecting your authenticity.”  

Why everyone benefits

The emotional weight attached to pronouns goes both ways. While being misgendered can be incredibly damaging for someone, adopting a new pronoun can result in feelings of gender euphoria — which JP describes as “the inexplicable feeling of someone using your preferred name, pronouns, or honorific, and not feeling like you want to die a little inside.” 

For some people — like Rae, 29, of Pennsylvania, who is nonbinary and identifies as demigender — adopting neopronouns is part of a process. “I use neopronouns to force people to acknowledge me for who I am, and also to remind myself sometimes,” ze tells Rolling Stone. “I’m still working on using them offline, but at the very least, I can be who I am in totality on the internet.” 

And as someone who is nonbinary, Rae appreciates having options that not only more accurately reflect zer identity, but are also “obviously singular, so there are no jackasses arguing about how they/them is ‘always plural.’” 

Like most other shifts toward inclusivity and intersectionality that alter the status quo, some people are threatened by the use of neopronouns. “There is no gender monster coming to brainwash your kids, rip your sexual orientation to shreds, and leave you with an identity crisis,” JP explains. “We just want to exist.”

If anything, SJ says, ultimately gender-neutral pronouns and neopronouns are beneficial for everyone. “Who doesn’t like more options? By us trans folks being our most authentic selves, we’re creating a more accepting world for your children,” they explain. “How can you not want that?”

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