He, she, and ze: A guide to modern gender pronouns

Luke Mintz
The rise of transgender rights across the world has brought the creation of new 'gender-neutral' pronouns - Getty Images Europe

You're due to meet somebody for the first time. Perhaps it’s a colleague for a work meeting, or maybe you've invited your child's new boyfriend or girlfriend over for dinner. You know the traditional rules of engagement: ask their name, shake hands, and maybe exchange some pleasantries about the weather.

But are you definitely using the correct gender pronoun? Is the person you are greeting a “he”, “she”, “they”, or even a “zie”? Until recently, this wasn’t a question that occupied many minds.

But with the rise of the transgender rights movement over the last few years, gender pronouns have become a hot button issue, with many well-meaning middle-aged people finding themselves caught in the middle of a very modern minefield.

Indeed, getting somebody’s gender pronouns wrong can have serious consequences, as Caroline Farrow, a Catholic commentator who debates the issue on television, may have discovered this week. The mother-of-five, who has strong religious views, claims she was asked by Surrey Police to attend a taped interview after she was accused of using an incorrect gender pronoun during a discussion on Twitter.

So, how do you navigate this new ethical quagmire? How do you know which gender pronoun to use? And why does it matter anyway? The University of Wisconsin, in the United States, released a ‘Gender Pronouns’ guide in 2011 which has proved popular, copied online all over the world. It gives some useful answers.

Caroline Farrow, a Catholic commentator, says she asked by Surrey Police to attend a taped interview Credit:  Ken McKay/REX/Shutterstock

How do you know which pronouns to use?

According to LGBT activists, you can’t always tell what somebody’s gender is just by looking at them. Referring to a stranger as “he” just because they “look like a man” is a surefire way to land yourself in trouble, they say. Instead, it could be a good idea to ask somebody what pronouns they use when you first meet them.

Several British universities have gone further, trying to eliminate any confusion by introducing ‘pronoun introductions’, where students will routinely introduce themselves at seminars and student union meetings with their name and “preferred pronoun”. Edinburgh University went as far as handing out ‘pronoun badges’ at its freshers fair last year.

Why do pronouns matter?

“Misgendering” a transgender person can be a hugely unpleasant experience, LGBT activists say. The Wisconsin guide says that being referred to with the wrong pronoun can make transgender people “feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, [and] alienated”. They say it can also trigger a person’s gender dysphoria, which is defined by the NHS as the discomfort or distress somebody experiences when their biological sex does not match their gender identity.

Indeed, “misgendering” is taken seriously by police in the UK. Last February, an unnamed schoolteacher was told by police she may have committed a hate crime after she refused to acknowledge that a transgender pupil in her class identified as a boy, failing to address him as “he” and “him”.

Which pronouns should you use?

The most common pronouns are the traditional gendered pronouns he/him/his, for people who identify as men, and she/her/hers, for people who identify as women. According to the Wisconsin guide, however, these should not be described as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ pronouns, “because not everybody who uses ‘he’ feels like a ‘male’ or ‘masculine’.”

Next, there is a long list of gender-neutral pronouns, designed for people who don’t identify as a man or a woman.

The most common of these is they/them/theirs, which have become so popular that ‘They’ was voted as Word of the Year in 2015 by the American Dialect Society. The same year, the Washington Post made headlines after declaring that it was grammatically permissible to use “they” when referring to an individual, and “useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female”.

Another advantage of “they” is that it already exists in English, a language that has historically lacked room for gender-neutral expression. As a result, LGBT activists have had to invent their own words in recent years.

The most popular of these newly-minted gender-neutral pronouns is “Ze”, which is pronounced “zee” and can also be spelled “zie” or “xe”. Explaining how to use Ze, the Wisconsin guide compares it to the use of “she”, writing that she = zie, her = zim, hers = zirs, and herself = zirself.

Other less common gender-neutral pronouns include ‘ve’, ‘xe’, and ‘per’, the guide says.

What if you make a mistake?

It’s judgement day. You’ve swotted up on your ‘woke’ vocabulary, and you understand the ins and outs of gender pronouns. You can reel ‘ze’, ‘ve’, and ‘xe’ off your mind as if they were the names of your own children. But disaster strikes, and you make a mistake. What do you do?

Don’t worry, say most LGBT activists, it happens to everybody. All you should do is quickly apologise, correct yourself, and move on.

The Wisconsin guide writes: “Everyone slips from time to time. It can tempting to go on and on about how bad you feel that you messed up, or how hard it is for you to get it right. Please don’t. It’s inappropriate and makes the person who was misgendered feel awkward and responsible for comforting you, which is absolutely not their job.”