Written by DiveThru Team
Reviewed by Natalie Asayag MSW, LCSW
How To Use Gender-Neutral Pronouns In Conversation
Published Dec 23rd, 2020 & updated on Mar 19th, 2021
Using gender-neutral pronouns can be a bit of an adjustment. We are taught in school that when we are talking about someone, we should refer to them as he/him or she/her. These rules become part of our everyday vernacular and have made it challenging to use and encourage the use of more inclusive language.
Here are just a few examples of common titles and phrases that are said a lot and aren’t inclusive, like… at all.
Ladies and Gentlemen.
Fight like a girl.
That’s women’s work.
Fathers babysit their children.
The more you start to think about how gendered our language is, the more you’ll begin seeing it all around you.
For many of us, we have only ever spoken about or referred to people with gendered language attached to them, so making a change to using gender-neutral pronouns can be a little tricky. But we’re happy that you’ve clicked on this article because that means that you’re willing to learn!
So, how do you start using gender-neutral pronouns in conversation?
If You Don’t Know Someone’s Gender, Use “They”
If you’re talking to a friend and she mentions that her cousin just had a baby, you can ask, “What did they name them?” That way, the gender of your friend’s cousin and the baby aren’t assumed.
If you’re out for a walk and you meet a puppy, you can ask the owner “What’s their name?” instead of, “What’s her name?” That way, even though it’s a puppy, you’re using gender-neutral language and getting used to it in every situation!
There is some debate around the use of they/them when referring to a singular person, but we’re here to tell you that even if it feels weird, DO IT ANYWAY! It’s a really easy way to show respect for nonbinary and agender individuals, and they’ll definitely appreciate the effort.
Switch To Plurals
Instead of using “his or her” when talking about a group of people, try to use they, them, or their(s) instead.
For example: Every student must put his or her cell phone away before taking the test.
You can change that sentence to: All students must put away their cellphones before taking the test.
See? Super easy.
If someone you know uses the pronouns they/them and you don’t know how to use those pronouns correctly just yet, you can repeat their name: “I was talking to Sam yesterday. Yes! Sam is doing really well.”
It might sound funny at first, but if you’re having a hard time incorporating they/them pronouns into your language, this is a really easy way to start being more inclusive!
Refer To Someone’s Significant Other As A Partner
A lot of us in relationships call our significant other our boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, or husband.
If someone is dating another person whose gender you don’t know, you can refer to this person as a “partner.”
For example: “Did you meet Matilda’s partner at the Holiday Party?”
Some of our team members here at DiveThru already refer to their significant other as their partner. It’s an easy change if you want to be more inclusive with your language when a person you know is settling into a relationship. Plus, calling someone a partner makes it sound super cool–like they’re a pair of detectives.
If someone uses they/them pronouns, you’re probably going to slip up and use their old and gendered pronouns. That’s ok! It can take some getting used to, especially if you knew this person before they changed how they identify.
What matters most in this situation is that you say, “Whoops, sorry!” Simply correct yourself, and then keep moving on with the conversation.
Many trans people don’t like when you make a big deal and hullabaloo over accidentally messing up their pronouns. Just apologize, make the correction, and keep going. That way, you aren’t focusing on their old gender and making a scene about it. Trans people will appreciate your correction because that means that you’re trying and learning!
Here’s a little list to get you thinking about how you might be incorporating gendered language into your vocabulary:
Do you refer to a group of people by one gender?
Do you use he/him/she/her when talking about someone whose gender you don’t know?
Was the mention of their gender necessary?
Did you stereotype someone based on their job or any other factors?
You don’t have to change your whole vocabulary overnight. Even small changes can add up and eventually make a big difference! But if you’re ever unsure about which pronouns to use when talking to or about someone, just ask them if they feel comfortable sharing them with you. Easy, right? You got this!