To help you through your inclusive journey, we decided to talk about gender-neutral pronouns. To be inclusive in business and life, we need to make an effort to use unbiased language. Being inclusive is to avoid assuming people’s characteristics just by looking at them. Concepts of gender or sexual orientation are fluid and could vary around the globe. For businesses, it is about making content welcoming to a broader audience.
So what is the best approach? Get informed before assuming someone’s identity or gender. This article will answer some of the most common questions using neutral pronouns and share a short guide you can download to help you put it into practice.
What are pronouns?
In short, a pronoun is a word that substitutes a noun or noun phrase for it not to be repeated. Personal pronouns are used in a third person singular. Some personal pronouns denote gender, but they do not cover all gender identities, which is why gender-neutral pronouns are becoming standard for nongender conforming individuals. LinkedIn, for example, has included a field for users to include their pronouns.
The most common pronoun for nonbinary or non-gender conforming identities is “they/them”. But it is not the only option. Because it can mean more than one person, it sometimes complicates understanding if it is a gender-neutral pronoun or a plural pronoun.
The use of gender-neutral pronouns and what is considered right or wrong is constantly changing, so it is vital not to assume gender and automatically use a gendered pronoun.
Why are personal pronouns important?
The first step to starting using inclusive language is understanding why personal pronouns are a first step to respecting people’s unique identity and moving away from stereotypes and labels.
Personal pronouns, or third-person pronouns, are an essential part of people’s self-expression and identity. As mentioned by linguist Dr Kirby Conrad, ask anyone who is nonbinary, and they will tell you misgendering can really hurt. Avoiding “preferred pronouns” is also a good recommendation, as this can sound offensive to a nonbinary person as it denotes “choice”.
There is no official consensus between linguists, grammarians and language experts of which pronouns should be used as neutral pronouns or new pronouns should be added officially to grammar rules. The hope is that they will get there eventually. While that doesn’t happen, it is up to us to do our best to respect people’s identities and be more inclusive in our use of pronouns.
About Gender-Neutral Pronouns and Neopronouns
Gender-neutral pronouns are not new, and writers have been experimenting with them and trying to make them part of the official grammar for centuries. The Merriam Webster Dictionary, for example, says that gender-neutral pronouns have been added and removed from dictionaries for lack of use. It mentions the inclusion of “Thon”, short for “that one”, part of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language between 1934-1961. You can find the pronoun “thon” in the Scrabble Dictionary!
Currently, there are a few options available to bypass grammar rules to avoid using gender pronouns. One of them is the use of passive voice. The other, mentioned previously, is the use of “they/them”, but there is some resistance to this use.
Why have a pronoun with two meanings when we could introduce a new one to cover gender-neutral identities? Dictionaries are continually being updated and, as we love to say, “language is alive”, so why not? We don’t see why not. We believe that language should follow the needs of its time.
In that sense, one attempt to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun is to use a neopronoun. Neopronouns are not officially recognised but can be part of a business’ inclusive policy, style guides, or email signatures.
Neopronouns, or new pronouns, started showing up in the mid-20th century but became more popular in the Internet age and the increase of self-identifying as nonbinary. You will find a few of them in the table below, but for more information, read the LGBT wiki on neopronouns on wikia.org.
To help you practice it, The Writing Box created a short guide suggesting ways to work on inclusive writing and gender-neutral language. Click on the image below to access a pdf to download or print.
What else can I do to be more inclusive (and gender-neutral) in my use of language?
It is not all about pronouns. Gender-biased language is constantly used without the person being aware of it. Words like “manpower”, “landlord”, “waitress”, and “policeman”, for example, are what is called gender-marked roles. Gender titles can also be a challenge, but the “Mx” option on some websites is always a nice surprise. The book “Inclusive Language” by Lingo Valley make a few suggestions of terms we should avoid and other options with the same meaning. Here are a few examples:
- Use “workforce” instead of “manpower”.
- Use “owner” instead of “landlord”.
- Use “spouse” or “partner” instead of “husband” or “wife”.
- Use “people with disabilities” instead of “the handicapped”.
- Use “people with vision impairment” instead of “the blind”.
- Use “older person” or “senior” instead of “the elderly”.
These suggestions are a great starting point to start incorporating inclusive language in your day-to-day life.
Other than that, you can:
- Train by yourself.
- Practice with others.
- Pay attention to all your uses of pronouns.
- Add your pronoun in your signature email and/or social media.
- Suggest to your boss to encourage the use of pronouns on email signatures.
- Create a Diversity and Inclusion guide for your business.
- Add new pronouns to cover nonbinary identities into your Editorial Style Guide.
The Writing Box is here to help you in immersing yourself in the diverse and inclusive sphere. We will help you create your Diversity and Inclusion Guide and Editorial Style Guide. Get a quote! = )