People sometimes worry about honoring the personal pronouns of those who don’t identify with the gender binary. They’re concerned that using (for instance) “they/them” in place of “he/him” or “she/her” will be complicated or confusing. Some aren’t sure about the grammar (“They are” or “They is”?).
Overcoming entrenched speech habits to use the right pronoun consistently takes practice. But in writing, it’s easier. Plenty of creative writers use “they/them” pronouns (among others) for nonbinary characters.
The Chicago Way
CMOS 5.48 is clear: “When referring specifically to a person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun . . . they and its forms are often preferred. (They used in this sense was the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2015.) Like singular you, singular they takes a plural verb.”
Pronouns in Action
In this scene from Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best (New York: PUSH, 2019), the narrator, Ben, uses his friend Mariam’s “they/them” pronouns:
When I finally mustered the courage to come out to someone, it was Mariam. That was a super awkward night. In fact, I made a Twitter account just to talk to them. But they worked me through it. . . . Hell, they’re one of the few people who I let call me Benji. (34)
There’s no ambiguity here: all the “they” pronouns refer to Mariam. And as you can see, “they” as a singular works the same way as “they” as a plural: talk to them, they worked, they’re (they are) one.
Although someone might argue that it’s confusing to use the same word to refer to a singular entity in one place and a plural entity in another, the pronouns “you” and “your” work in exactly that way. In this passage, Ben and Mariam are texting (singular “you”):
Mariam: Listen I have to go get ready for a meeting. But I’ll message you the second I’m out. I love you Benji. So much. <3
Me: Love you too. (33)
And in this line, Ben addresses his parents (plural “you”):
“Hey, I wanted to talk to you two about something,” I say, my voice really dry. (6)
In both instances, “you” is perfectly understandable. When there’s a chance of confusion over who is being addressed, it’s second nature for a writer to insert a hint, such as the word “two” in the line above.
Mixing It Up
A person who requests the courtesy of being addressed by nonbinary pronouns normally extends the same courtesy, using others’ gendered or ungendered pronouns.
Although Deaver’s narrator Ben uses “they” in reference to Mariam, he uses “he,” “she,” and “they” (plural) when talking about his brother-in-law Thomas, his sister Hannah, and his parents:
Thomas said to help myself to food, but I don’t think he realizes just how awkward that’ll be. (33)
“In here,” I say, but I don’t think she hears me. (34)
I know my parents, they know me, they deserve to know this thing about me as well.
And I want to tell them, I really, really do. (3)
Of course, it’s common in fiction for a single paragraph to contain pronouns that refer to more than one character. In this passage from River of Teeth (New York: Tor.com, 2017), look how seamlessly Sarah Gailey uses “they” and “their” and even “themself” to refer to the agender character Hero, while retaining the use of “he” and “his” for the male character Houndstooth.
“Hero.” He seemed to be rolling their name across his tongue. Hero caught themself staring and looked away. “Hero, I’m supposed to get you to accept this job. I accepted this job with the understanding that I would have a demolitions expert on board.”
Hero sipped their sweet tea and watched Houndstooth fiddle with his hat. “I’ll need some convincing. So. Convince me.” They tried not to blink while they said it, knowing that it sounded for all the world like a line. (35)
While it’s true that in rare cases using “they” (or “you”) for both singular and plural can lead to confusion, that problem arises with all pronouns, including “he,” “she,” and “it.” How often have you been bewildered by a blur of “she did this” and “she said that” in a passage featuring two women, not sure which character was meant?
Sometimes it’s actually easier to keep track of characters in a scene when one identifies with a gender and the other doesn’t. In the scene above, where only Hero is pegged with “they” or “their,” we always know who’s who.
Deaver’s narration shows the same ease when using “they/them” for Mariam and “he/him” for Ben’s boyfriend. In the last sentence, there’s no doubt which person “he” refers to. If both Mariam and the boyfriend identified as male, the sentence might require editing for clarity:
When Mariam asked me to help them with a new project they’re starting, there was no way I was going to turn them down. . . . All while providing a little emotional support for my boyfriend, while he spends long nights writing papers and drinking way too much coffee. Of course, he has to live in the dorms for the first year, but Mariam and I have worked something out. (319)
Alternatives to Singular “They”
While “they” has surely emerged as the leading alternative to “he” and “she,” other pronouns are in use.* Rebecca Roanhorse uses “xe” and “xir” as the nominative and objective pronouns for the Priest of Knives Iktan in Black Sun (New York: Saga Press, 2020), while using “she” and “her” for the Sun Priest Naranpa:
Xe shrugged, a small lift of one shoulder, but it was the most doubt she [Naranpa] had ever seen xir show. Iktan might not admit it to her, but the assassination attempt today had rattled xir. (64)
The distinct personal pronouns leave no doubt as to who was rattled.
Baron, Dennis. What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She. New York: Liveright, 2020.
National Council of Teachers of English. “Statement on Gender and Language.”
Sakurai, Shige. MyPronouns.org: Resources on Personal Pronouns.
Yin, Karen. Conscious Style Guide. “Gender, Sex, and Sexuality.”
* Most are singular and take singular verbs. For a list, see “Gender Neutrality in Languages with Gendered Third-Person Pronouns,” Wikipedia.
Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.
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Carol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.
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2 thoughts on “Gender-Neutral Pronouns in Creative Writing”
I suppose that eventually they/they-all will become an indication of singular/plural usage.
While technically correct, I find it increasingly confusing to read text with the newly created gender-neutral pronouns. It does not seem to flow as well and authors seem to go through linguistic contortions that seem forced just to use such a linguistic device. From a readers perspective, I feel that an author would be better off using proper names only rather than a gender-neutral pronoun.
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