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From Ze to Hir: Another Set of Pronouns

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It’s hard to understand non-binary pronouns when you don’t understand non-binary gender—which is often the reason for using non-binary pronouns. The best way I can explain it is to walk you through my own process.

  An Evolving Lexicon

English professors, grammar nuts, and gender rebels often come up with their own alternative pronoun sets. Ze/hir is one of the most prominent and has been in use since the ’70s. In some regions people use ze/zim/zir as an alternative variation.

In addition to using other pronoun sets, you can use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, avoid pronouns, alternate pronouns. These are all things to do at people’s request. It would be considered very rude to avoid pronouns for someone who didn’t want that, especially if it was an attempt to not have to use their preferred pronoun.

Example: I watched him as he did his homework

Ex: I watched her as she did her homework

Ex: I watched hir as ze did hir homework

Ex: I watched them as they did their homework

Pronoun Avoidance by rearranging sentences
Ex: We hung out for a while and I can tell you the homework certainly did get done. I watched.

  Unknown Territory

When confronted with a new pronoun set, it’s not unusual for people to be resistant or claim that it’s not possible to change an ingrained subset of language such as pronouns. This ignores the fact that most English speakers already use a gender-neutral pronoun—the singular “they.”

People are happy to use the singular they for a generic unknown person of unspecified gender. It is when they are speaking about an individual they know that people suddenly have trouble with “they” and insist on referring to a person as “he” or “she,” even when that person is neither male nor female. Knowing the person’s gender matters not because they are unfamiliar with “they” or other gender-neutral pronouns, but because they are uncomfortable interacting with someone they can’t assign a binary gender to.

Using pronouns of any type is typically an unconscious behavior. Without over-thinking things, it’s not too difficult to incorporate ze and hir, they, or other pronoun sets into the personal lexicon. The newness of the words can be an added complication, but that excuse only goes so far when people are constantly learning a plethora of new slang, Internet lingo, and technical terms.

Of course mistakes will be made, but the way one handles a mistake can make a world of difference. I’ve had people sit down beside me and explain that they truly want to respect my pronouns, but they’ll have to go through a learning curve, and then proceed to use the wrong pronouns unflinchingly until we go our separate ways months later. Alternatively, I’ve had other folks push themselves even when it sounded awkward and after making an honest effort still slipped up a few times. If you can demonstrably show that you are trying to use alternative pronouns, then no one has to wonder if your honest mistakes are actually veiled insults.

If you do catch yourself mispronouning someone, the best thing to do is to correct yourself and move on. Don’t spend the next 10 minutes apologizing and looking for forgiveness. Don’t explain how you’re working on it. And most certainly don’t declare that it’s unreasonable to expect someone to use an alternative pronoun set or take offense being corrected.

Being called by the wrong pronoun is sort of like having your toes stepped on. It’s not just a faux pas, it’s hurtful. Sure, it might be an accident, they might be sorry, you might forgive them, but it still hurts. And if it happens repeatedly then you might not want to be around them. No matter how sorry a person is, sometimes it’s safer to just stay away from the klutz who keeps stomping on your feet.

Most people are familiar with the impact of mispronouning someone who goes by traditional pronouns. Mispronouning someone who uses alternative pronouns isn’t necessarily any different. Some people may let it roll off their back, knowing that it’s something many people aren’t familiar with. Other people might feel deeply hurt and disrespected.

One major variable that might influence that is any preference they might have between binary pronouns. I spent a couple years asking everyone to use ze/hir for me. Plenty of people did. Many more people didn’t. People being unwilling to or forgetting to use ze hurt much less then the fact that everyone reverted to calling me ‘he’—something which left me feeling devastated. Eventually I stopped asking all but my close friends to use ‘ze’ for me and just asked for ‘she.’ I couldn’t trust most people well enough to ask for what I wanted, because it risked losing what I needed. Now, anytime I ask someone to call me ‘ze,’ it’s because I have a high level of respect and trust for them.

Not everybody reserves a pronoun set for those they trust, and often times you’ll hear alternative pronouns in a pronoun check-in. Nonetheless, anytime someone asks me to use an alternative pronoun set for them I recognize that I’m being trusted with an important responsibility. Learning to adapt to unfamiliar pronouns is a skill. It can be frustrating at times. But that sense of trust and responsibility is a strong motivator. And once that skill is built, it’s not hard to slip in a new pronoun, rotate between a few, or even restructure sentences to avoid them altogether.

I had a friend who I once noticed kept answering the pronoun check-in with, “I don’t know,” and everyone just continued to call them ‘she.’ I checked in with him about it and they explained that he never really liked ‘she,’ but ‘he’ didn’t seem to fit, and ‘ze’ just sounded weird to him. I suggested that I could alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’—even being sure to include both in every statement I made about him—and he lit up.

He said, “Wow! You could do that? I’d love for you to do that for me.”

So that’s what I did, for a few months, until he realized that ‘he’ fit for him and had the confidence to ask for it. It was in that moment, though, that I realized this skill is not just an issue of etiquette, but something very valuable that could have a tangible benefit on peoples’ lives.


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Contributor: Gabe

I also know a couple trans folks who use their names, rather than pronouns.
"Jesse and I went to the store with Jesse's girlfriend. I bought Jesse some new pants."

...the only time it gets a little complicated is in the reflexive pronoun-- "Jesse bought Jesseself a shirt" just doesn't flow quite right.

Contributor: Gabe

(also, great article!)

Contributor: Ben Martin,
Ben Martin,  

I remember tackling the use of "they/their" in college. People insisted that those words could only be used for the plural, yet I knew from reading older literature that there was a long-established use of the term as a neuter single. Finally I came across a textbook where the author used "they/their" in the singular and even included a note of explanation at the beginning. That author was trying to avoid singling out a particular gender and also to avoid the clunky "he/she" "him/her." At that point, considering people who themselves weren't certain what gender (if any) they were wasn't part of the conversation, but a widespread return to "they/their" would probably be the most diplomatic way for the English language to go. It's already established, so as not to ruffle too many feathers, yet it prevents you from stepping on toes in almost any context. Though, I must say, if a friend of mine asked me to use an alternative, I would.

Contributor: Valentinka

Great and interesting article, really! Thanks!