using non-binary pronouns 101: a how-to

you know someone who uses non-binary/gender neutral pronouns, you lucky duck! if you’ve not built the speech patterns for using non-binary pronouns, you might feel a little out of your depth. that’s a natural first feeling, but now that you’ve felt it, you need to let it go to embrace this learning curve. you get to learn more about goodness! and inclusivity! you’re part of building a better world and that’s beautiful and exciting! here are some tips to get you started 🙂

about this post

-i’m ky magdalene, a white, non-binary trans person living in and writing from the united states whose pronouns are they/them.

-i primarily refer to the pronouns discussed in this post as non-binary pronouns because i mean just that: not binary, i.e. not he/him/his or she/her/hers. i do not mean that only non-binary people can or do use these pronouns, just as not all folks using she/her are women and not all folks using he/him are men. pronouns don’t equal gender!

-this post is about using people’s non-binary pronouns, but be aware that when someone tells you their pronouns, you may need to use them with discretion for that person’s safety. use good judgement to determine if that may be the case and ask them how/when/where to use their pronouns if you need to. then follow their guidelines.

examples of non-binary pronouns

this is a non-exhaustive list of non-binary/gender neutral pronouns. some folks use these, some folks use others, and some folks create their own!

they / them / their / theirs / themself

ze / zir / zir / zirs / zirself

xe / hir / hir / hirs / hirself

xe / xem / xyr / xyrs / xemself

for a guide on pronouncing some non-binary pronouns, visit https://www.mykidisgay.com/blog/defining-neopronouns?rq=neopronouns.

how to learn a particular person’s pronouns

you won’t be able to tell someone’s pronouns by looking at them, unless they’re wearing identifiers such as pronoun pins, so here are tips for learning what people’s pronouns are!

1) introduce yourself with your pronouns. this will often prompt the people you’re meeting to do the same. 

example: “hi, i’m so-and-so. my pronouns are he/him.”

2) just ask! if you need to take the edge off how strange it can feel to ask a question you’re not used to asking, you can couch it in your introduction. 

example: “hi, i’m so-and-so. my pronouns are xe/hir; what are yours?”

if you’re past the introductory stage of your interactions, you can still just ask. a simple “oh, what’re your pronouns? mine are she/her” works wonders at any point.

3) check for pronoun pins, pronouns on name tags, or for pronouns to be listed in an email signature. it’s good practice for everyone to list their pronouns in their email signature; add yours if you don’t have them! 

my email signature looks like this:

ky magdalene
pronouns: they/them/theirs
[my job title]

how to build the speech pattern of using non-binary pronouns

using non-binary pronouns might be new to you; that’s all right! you can pick up that skill just like any other 🙂

1) practice with people whose genders you don’t know. use gender neutral pronouns for strangers or new people you’ve met whose pronouns you don’t know yet. remember, you can’t discern someone’s gender or pronouns from their appearance, unless they’re wearing identifiers.

2) practice with animals. if animals have genders, we don’t know them, because they’re unable to tell us what they are. use gender neutral language for them.

3) one of my favorite tips, which i learned from non-binary trans writer vin tanner, who writes at medium.com/@transstyleguide, is to practice using a person’s pronouns while looking at a picture of them. if you don’t have a picture handy, hold an image of them in your mind. then practice using their pronouns out loud, saying things like “so-and-so is a good friend. they are fun and smart and i admire their humor and kindness. i’m glad to know them. i’m glad so-and-so is themself.” intersperse your sentences with their name, so you can connect the two as you build the speech habit!

4) i built a pronoun worksheet to practice with that’s free to print at kymagdalene.com/non-binary-101. fill in the blanks with the person’s name and pronouns as marked and read it aloud.

what to do when you make a mistake 

you’re gonna mess up. everybody who uses a non-binary pronoun at this point in our (united states) cultural history knows this. it’s your responsibility to respond to your mistake with grace and to strive to move past making the same mistakes. mistakes are understandable but not infinitely allowable — and what each person will allow is up to them.

1) apologize: be brief. don’t go on and on about how sorry you are and how you didn’t mean to and all of that. it’s a strong urge, but putting the person you harmed with misgendering in the position of having to make you feel better about having done so causes further harm. also, they’re already doing a lot of emotional labor around being non-binary in this binary culture. don’t add to that. simply say, “i’m sorry” and then…

2) correct yourself. always make sure to take a moment to correct to their right pronoun, even if that person wasn’t around to hear your mistake. if you don’t correct yourself, you won’t build the new speech pattern you need to build and you’ll be teaching others the incorrect one when they hear you.

         example: “he said — i’m sorry — they said that it’s raining.”

what to do when others make a mistake

first, ask the person who uses non-binary pronouns if they want you to correct other people. take any and all direction they have for you on the matter. they may want you to correct people always; they may want you to correct people only when they’re not around to do it themself; they may want you to never correct people; they may want you to correct certain people and not others, depending on who might be in the know about their pronouns and the safety concerns they have about that.

listen to their needs and wants and ask questions if you have them. continue to check in about it over the course of your relationship with them.

to correct someone else, you can interrupt them with the person’s correct pronoun or you can make a point of using the person’s correct pronouns as a reply to someone using the incorrect ones. emphasize their correct pronouns when you do.

         example:

         “she said she’d be late today, right?”

         “xe said xe would be late, yes.”

often that can be enough to clue someone in, but if it isn’t, say something explicitly, such as “oh, so-and-so’s pronoun’s are xe/hir.”

further resources

for more information about how to move through the world in a way that makes it a better and safer place for non-binary folks, check out the following resources!

a quick and easy guide to they/them pronouns by archie bongiovanni and tristan jimerson

medium.com/@transstyleguide

support this project

i have more resources like this in the works and would greatly appreciate your support in surviving capitalism while i make them. you can provide support at patreon.com/kymagdalene.

3 thoughts on “using non-binary pronouns 101: a how-to

  1. Pingback: six resources for teaching cis folks you’re stuck with during self-isolation about trans identities | genderfuckery and other uprisings

  2. Pingback: tips and tools for making your workplace affirming of your trans and/or non-binary identity |

  3. Pingback: how to make your workplace more trans and non-binary affirming: an ally’s guide |

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