As a refresher, personal pronouns are stand-ins for a person or cluster of people. For example, I swiped right on her. Or, someone left their umbrella at the restaurant. Linguistically, neopronouns function as a wider range of gender-nonspecific personal pronouns for people who are gender non-conforming or are otherwise looking to buck the gender binary.
"In their most basic definition, [neoponouns are] pronouns used in lieu of she/her, he/him, or they/them," says Taylor Orlandoni, LMHC, a sexuality researcher and therapist who works with transgender and gender non-conforming people. "There's literally a glossary of truly thousands of options," she adds. Some common options include xe/xem/xyrs, ze/zir/zirs, /fae/faer/faers, ve/vir/vis, and ey/em/eirs, to name just a few.
Neopronouns also aren't new to the English language. In fact, the word "thon," short for "that one," even appeared in Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary from 1934 to 1961 before it was dropped for lack of use. The word was thought to have been coined as a gender neutral pronoun in 1858 by Charles Crozat Converse, an attorney and composer. Various other forms have appeared in language since 1858 and are believed to have gained more popularity on Tumblr around 2012.
Despite that history, though, the current rarity of neopronouns showing up in popular culture (as opposed to they/them pronouns) often results in people who use them spending an inordinate amount of time and emotional energy explaining their pronouns, with people who desire to use and respect all people’s pronouns feeling tongue-tied.
According to a 2020 Trevor Project survey of 40,000 LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13 and 24, about 4 percent of the LGBTQ+ youth population use neopronouns, and most often in combination with other personal pronouns. Since all people should be able to use whatever pronouns most resonate with their identity without having to bear the emotional labor of constantly explaining and teaching others, it's important that neopronouns are widely understood.
Neopronouns are pronouns without gender
A main component of what separates neopronouns from other personal pronouns is that they are very explicitly not linked to gender. "They disrupt the idea that you can make gender assumptions about a person based on their pronouns," says sex therapist Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
"[Neopronouns] disrupt the idea that you can make gender assumptions about a person based on their pronouns." —Jesse Kahn, LCSW
A number of folks are currently focused on untangling the direct link between pronouns like he/him and she/her from "man" and "woman," respectively (Queer Eye's Jonathan Van Ness, for example, uses he/him pronouns and is nonbinary). But due to these pronouns' long history of reflecting and reinforcing a gender binary, "in a lot of spaces, cultures, and languages, she/her pronouns and he/him pronouns are still [exclusively] linked to women and men," Kahn says.
Even they/them pronouns have been falsely assumed to indicate gender, giving more credence to the necessity of neopronouns and the wider understanding of what they mean. In fact, when Merriam-Webster added the singular "they" to the dictionary in 2019, there was some pushback from the LGBTQ+ community about the definition, which reads that they is "used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary." That's because being nonbinary and using they/them pronouns are not mutually exclusive events; some people use they/them pronouns but are not nonbinary, just as there are nonbinary people who use other pronouns.
Moving away from gender is exactly why Jordan, 23, uses xe/xem/xyr neopronouns. “Might I feel comfortable with they/them pronouns if they didn’t mistakenly lead people to believe I’m nonbinary? Maybe,” xe says. As an agender person—meaning xe doesn’t have any particular gender—Jordan says the idea of being read as half-man and half-woman, which was how xe felt when using they/them pronouns, brings on gender dysphoria (or the experience of distress as a result of a person's body not matching their gender identity). "I also just like the way hearing xe/xem sounds when someone is referring to me," xe says.
Claire, 20, uses fae/fear, she/her, and they/them pronouns. "In spaces with my gender-abolitionist friends, I use neopronouns because I know they already understand how to use them," fae says. But with everybody else, Claire uses she/they pronouns, mainly because it’s easier. "My professors are pretty good at using they/them pronouns for me and other people at this point…but, oof, ask them to use neopronouns, and it's downright painful how bad they are at it."
How to affirm someone's neopronouns
To be sure, being "bad at it" is no excuse for not affirming people's identity with their correct pronouns. "Even if you still don't 'get' neopronouns and wonder why someone wouldn’t just use they/them [pronouns instead], you need to remind yourself that you cannot police identification," says Orlandoni. If a particular set of neopronouns feels good for someone, your move is to respect those pronouns without question.
If you do have more questions about neopronouns, Orlandoni recommends taking your curiosity to Google and doing your own research rather than putting the onus on the neopronoun-user to be your expert. "Then, if your friend wants to share more deeply and indicates that they’re open to further conversation, you can ask them what their pronoun identification means for them," she says.
If you're nervous about messing up neopronoun usage, just as is the case with anything else in life, practice makes perfect. "Role-play using these pronouns in a sentence," suggests Kahn. "And if you make a mistake, just make the edit and keep moving." Because ultimately, the best way to affirm someone's pronouns and normalize the usage of neopronouns in language is to use them.
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