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Gender Neutral Pronouns Can Be Confusing In Writing, But Really The Issue Is With Us, Not They/Them

Gender Neutral Pronouns non-binary they them ze zem xe
People can have numerous reasons for desiring certain pronouns that aren't binary.

Wanting to include non-binary characters in a recent storybook, I wanted to use they/them pronouns. However upon doing so I discovered that these words can sometimes end up making some sentences very ambiguous and confusing, particularly around verbs when multiple people are involved. As examples:

Sam picked up their hat, who passed it to Claude who put it on their head.
"Look at the funny cat!" Jack said to Susan. They pointed and laughed.
Ezekiel went over to the group of people. Turning the corner a few minutes later, mum spotted them.

Who's head did the hat end up on? Was it one or both that pointed? Was it Ezekiel or the group mum spotted? You can see the uncertainty that can result from using gender neutral pronouns. Granted, these can both be resolved by using the individual's name again (try it and see), but the repetition can make the sentence feel a little clumsy and goes against one of the base rules of writing in avoiding repetition in a sentence.

However whilst this language may feel bumpy to read, I'm not proposing we need to force they/them back into the binary. Instead, it is suggested that this newer use of language will simply take time to adjust to. I write this, as if we take some of these examples, if they were two same sexed binary gendered people you would in fact come across the same issue. for example:

Sam picked up his hat, who passed it to Claude, who put it on his head.

Again, who's head did the hat end up on? I expect however you found the 'they/them' scenarios more jarring to read though. This helps show that the feeling of clunkiness is largely that this modern use of they/them is simply much newer to us. Having kept writing about characters using they/them I have started to get used to it, whilst my partner that I occasionally share my work with, still doesn't like the sentence structures (not that either have any issue with the use of gender neutral pronouns I should add).

Trans and Non Binary Symbols Flag Together
Gender neutral pronouns are most commonly used by trans and non-binary people

Some say that they and them should be reserved for groups of people, and to use other pronouns like ze. To those, I would point to that in fact, you've likely been mixing in gender neutral pronouns with gendered ones for a long time. Take these sentences for example

"Have you seen them?"
"Are they coming in today?"
"Are you going to their house?"

As you can see with these everyday phrases, they use gender neutral pronouns!! So the rationale of reserving these for multiple people simply doesn't hold up. However that is not to deny the idea that in the long term we may sashay our way towards other pronouns like ze, per or fae. Before that potentially happens however, we'll likely see more use of they/them, so have an opportunity to get more familiar with using them.

The progression of words is typically quite iterative in its development. Take the word gender itself. It was previously spelled gendre in England, taken from the French gendre, and Latin genus before that (both meaning kind), taking its gen root from Greek waaaaay back when.

Because they/them are already in use, what we're seeing is simply a development of the use of those words. Whilst this updated use is still new and will take some getting used to, we can expect it to occur more quickly than brand new words like xe, ze etc. Though pronouns such as these now help people to identify in a way that reflects them, with most people not being exposed or using them often, they shall likely feel more jarring when written and said for longer.

It is positive to see that we are starting to flex our language to reflect people's gender (and not demanding the other way round as it has been). However as all around the world we explore what works and what fits, one things for certain, getting used to it will take a bit of time and effort. However with a bit of work, we can rewire our thinking to be as comfortable with them and xem as him and her.


x The Age Gap Guys x


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