7

I'm writing a book in which there is a character with no gender.

I don't know what pronouns I should use for this character.

I can't use he/she.

What pronouns should I use?

Example:

With gender:

She kissed him

Without gender:

It kissed him

It doesn't seem nice to say "It kissed him", especially with agender humans.

16
  • 20
    they/them? maybe just ask, im sure you can find an LGBT community somewhere who can help. – Ceramicmrno0b Apr 29 at 20:12
  • 55
    @Coder2195 Singular "they" is grammatically correct and has been in widespread use for hundreds of years. – F1Krazy Apr 29 at 20:40
  • 23
    I second @Ceramicmrno0b comment. Writing about nonbinary people without researching about them is a risky move in general. – user1079505 Apr 30 at 6:36
  • 12
    "It" is traditionally a transphobic slur. You definitely don't want to use that one. – Carl Kevinson Apr 30 at 13:22
  • 8
    I’m agender and I prefer they, just like some of the answers recommended. I also kind of like it when people use random, changing pronouns including neopronouns (but not it), but that’s probably more because I enjoy novelty and variety. If I had a one-syllable name, I might also recommend using that instead of a pronoun, but with my two syllables I’d feel a bit like I’m imposing. – Denis Drescher Apr 30 at 13:37
39

"They/them" is typically the modern way of referring to an agender, nonbinary or nonconforming person, unless that person has other preferred pronouns - usually they will tell you if that's the case. It may feel weird to use "they" at first because it is, strictly grammatically speaking, a plural pronoun, so sometimes people are confused by how to use it.

For your given example, you would simply say:

They kissed him.

To further illustrate this, I'll write you up a quick passage. You use "they" just the same as you would typically use it for groups of people.

They always had a knack for the chessboard. It was a way they had of asserting control over every piece, moving each one with a careful, measured precision. "It took me years of practice," they said, with obvious pride.

Alternatively, you can also look into neopronouns, but "they" should be completely fine for your purposes.

Edit: As noted in chat, there would also be a viable way to write an agender character by simply avoiding pronouns altogether. You would have to take special care to avoid clunkiness, but using only the character's name to refer to the person and simply choosing not to use pronouns at all is another completely valid option.

And, as noted in comments, you would have to take care to ensure that the usage of "they" is always clear, and refers specifically to the person in a way that's immediately obvious to the reader.

3
  • 2
    Please remember that comments are for suggesting improvements to an answer, not for debating its subject matter. If you disagree with the validity of singular "they" as a pronoun, that's fine, but the comments section of this post is not the place to express it. If you have an alternative solution (i.e. "don't do X, do Y, because Z", and not just "don't do X"), then please post it as an answer. – F1Krazy Apr 30 at 19:41
  • 9
    It might be worth noting that, while 'they' is likely the best alternative, it then becomes even more necessary than normal for the author to remove any ambiguity that may be caused by the singular/plural. For instance, if there are multiple people on a bridge and 'they' fell off, the author should make very clear whether everyone is falling off the bridge or just the one genderless person. From a reader's perspective, using 'they' as a singular is already fairly jarring, so the author must take extra care to avoid further confusion. – Galendo Apr 30 at 19:52
  • 2
    There is one subtlety worth mentioning, although writers probably know it already: even though they is being used as a third-person singular pronoun, it conjugates verbs just like the plural they. Luckily, this only matters in the present tense (and one or two other tenses of the copula verb). – J.G. Apr 30 at 20:57
19

To go over your options:

Good:

  • The pronoun they/them is the pronoun that most real-world English-speaking people adopt when they don’t go by he or she (see The Trevor Project and Nonbinary Wiki’s survey list). Because it’s the most widespread, being frequently used as the pronoun to refer to a generic or unknown person (“each person will get their money”, “the person who left their coat”), it’s the pronoun that sounds the most natural to many people. This is also the pronoun I’ve seen employed most often in writing for characters who don’t take a gendered pronoun.

Also good:

  • No pronouns. In this case, you use the character’s name and write well so that you’re not overusing it. This is also a somewhat popular “pronoun” in the real world.

Gender neutral but not great:

  • There are neopronouns, none of which have been widely adopted and which many say sound weird. Still, I compiled a usage based list of reflexive neopronouns. (I’ve seen neopronouns used but very, very infrequently, even across many stories with non-binary characters.)

Not gender neutral:

  • He and she both convey gender. To demonstrate this simply, try pairing male, female, and neutral names with each pronoun and see what gender you perceive it as referring to. (The perceived gender for me is always the same as that if the pronoun, with mixed gender pairs sounding a bit odd, maybe like the name is a surname.) Still, the “status quo” pronoun, the one that’s been used for them since birth, is the pronoun that some people use even though they don’t identify with that gender.

Gender neutral but dehumanizing:

  • It is the pronoun used for inanimate objects and animals (usually, though even animals are given gendered pronouns when known).

    Polls (gender census) indicate that some people want to be referred to as it, though I have never seen this, ever. However, referring to a person as it is almost always intended as an insult, an insult I’ve seen used specifically to make real-life trans people feel less than human.

    In the media, the same trope is used over and over again for the same purpose: "It" Is Dehumanizing (there are many, many examples, most of which have nothing to do with gender admittedly). Another trope and its criticisms may be relevant here as well, Non-Human Non-Binary: “This trope is sometimes used as a way of avoiding including genuine non-binary representation, or (worse) as a way to intentionally dehumanise non-binary people.”

    For these reasons I would suggest avoiding it.

Complicated... but:

  • Multiple pronouns. It’s hard not to dismiss it off the bat but really it’s the “pronoun” of choice for many people. I’ve personally encountered this a lot, especially out of fiction. And — as alluded to above — reality means that the pronouns someone wants to be called by aren’t always (maybe not even usually) what they are called by. The obvious con to this is that there are many ways this can end up hopelessly confusing for the reader. The obvious pro is that it has so much room for nuance and likely will paint a more realistic and relatable picture — if it’s done well. No matter what pronoun you choose for your character, answering these questions will be helpful:

    • Do they switch their pronouns based on the circumstances? (Eg. What gender they feel at the moment if they are genderfluid, online vs. in person, with friends vs. with coworkers)
    • Do they not care about what pronoun is used for them? Do they actually care but appear not to because they’re scared of something?
    • Does everyone respect their pronouns?
    • Are they out to everyone? Is there a group of people that they chose to trial a new pronoun?
    • What does the pronoun other people use for them say about how they are perceived? What does it say about the other people?
10
  • 4
    Note for your last point; while, certainly, referring to a person whose pronouns you don't know as 'it' is very, very rude, some people do in fact use it/its pronouns for themselves, and in that case, when you have been explicitly told that someone's pronouns are it/its, anything else would be incorrect. – Blargant Apr 30 at 4:53
  • 4
    Where in that link does it say "they" is the pronoun that most real-world English-speaking people adopt in a case like this where we're referring to a single person? What the link shows is the results of 3 surveys done within the "non-binary community" on Tumblr and the first one says "they" was preferred by 61% and "zie" was at 29% (which is totally not true in the "real-world" at all). Why do you think this survey gives an accurate representation of the "real-world English-speaking people"? It seems you're overselling the popularity of using "they" for singular. – user1271772 Apr 30 at 19:22
  • 4
    @user1271772 It doesn't say that at all. It says that "they" is the pronoun that most real-world English-speaking people use when they themselves don't go by "he" or "she", and the answer makes that quite clear. – F1Krazy Apr 30 at 19:25
  • 2
    @user1271772 I’m not sure I understand the criticism. When a person tells you to refer to them with a pronoun that’s not he or she, what do they usually want to be called? I can find a better survey and the answer I’m sure will be the same (though that survey was nice because it was of the non-binary community, which OP’s character would fall into). – Laurel Apr 30 at 19:30
  • 3
    @Laurel The problem is that you've oversold the results of that survey by claiming on SE that this is what "most real-world English-speaking people" adopt. Instead you can say that some poorly conducted survey (the numbers don't even add up to 100%!) on Tumblr with a very small sample-size from a specific community, arrives at that conclusion, and that you're working on finding a better resource :) – user1271772 Apr 30 at 19:34
3

You can just mention that the character is agender (which is the term for when someone doesn't have a gender) and use she or he pronouns. This can be done because pronouns don't always equal gender. The pronoun 'they' itself is a good example of this. While 'she' and 'he' usually have a connection to a gender, 'they' doesn't have a specific gender you associate it with. A cisgender person can use she and they pronouns or they/them pronouns and still be cis, and someone who uses she and they pronouns can also be agender, transgender, even catgender or other neogenders while still using she! 'They' is typically associated with someone who is nonbinary, but nonbinary itself isn't really a specific gender, and not everyone who is nonbinary uses they pronouns. So if you think it'll be difficult, you can always explicitly state it in the beginning and use she and/or he.

With multiple pronouns, as Laurel suggested, these might work better with fewer characters around or with characters who have other unique pronouns. Specifically stating which pronouns the character uses would also be good so the reader can know to look out for that.

1

Historically, English used "he" as both the male gendered pronoun, and as the "unmarked" or generic pronoun, to be used when the gender was unknown, or for a fictional person such as the plaintiff in a hypothetical lawsuit where no gender had been assigned. This "rule" dates to the mid-18th century and was widely prescribed during the 19th and much of the 20th. Today, many people consider this usage offensive, and it is rapidly declining. I would advise against it.

In response to this, invented pronouns such as "Xi" and "Zie" were created, but none of them ever gained widespread usage, and few people continue to use them.

Many people now use "singular they" this was in frequent use as long ago as the fourteenth century, It was used by  Chaucer and Shakespeare among many other well-known writers. Using this is unlikely to offend or confuse, but some still dislike it, and it does make grammatical rules about number agreement hard to follow in some cases, and can in some cases be confusing.

One can often avoid pronouns altogether, using the character's name or description directly. This will often give the writing an odd flavor. This may be desired to highlight the non-gendered nature of the character, or unwanted as drawing undue attention or breaking the flow of the writing.

I have seen works where the author alternates chapters, calling a person of unknown gender "she" in the first, chapter, "he" in the second, "she agaion in the third, and so on. I found this both confusing and affected.

I recall one popular SF series in which female characters referred to people of unknown gender as "she" while male characters used "he". This seemed too subtle to make its point, but might work for fiction set in a society quite different from our current one. So might the use of an invented pronoun.

The choice for a writer depends on the desired effect. If one wants to sound like a traditional writer of say 1750 to 1960, use "he". If one wants to sound like many current writers as of 2021, use "they". If one want to emphasize the difference of a specific agendered character from other characters, use an invented pronoun or avoid pronoun use completely for that character. No one choice is best for every destined effect and audience.

0
-1
  1. Classic approach

Genderless character is assigned a "gender" nevertheless, just for the purpose of convenience. This gender is usually masculine, but can be feminine as well. This is a preferred approach when the character in non-human, but this character just can't be referred to as "it".

  1. Modern approach

Pronouns "they" and "them" are used instead of "he"/"she". This is a preferred approach when the character is a human, and deliberately positioned as non-binary.

7
  • but it is a human though... and they refers to group of people – Coder2195 Apr 29 at 20:42
  • 10
    @Coder2195 not necessarily. "They" nowadays is a preferred pronoun for non-binary people. – Alexander Apr 29 at 20:43
  • oh ok then Ill try that – Coder2195 Apr 29 at 20:43
  • but could you provide an example this is used in – Coder2195 Apr 29 at 20:44
  • 2
    Yeah, they is not exclusively plural. Think about if you're talking about someone whose gender you don't know. "Oh crap, I found a wallet on the sidewalk with a bunch of cash in it. Should I turn it in so the owner could get their stuff back? I'm sure they would appreciate it" – Tasch Apr 30 at 20:06
-1

You said you want the equivalent of:

"She kissed him"

in which instead of "she" you have a genderless person.

Other answers so far have suggested to use "they", and I don't deny that this is becoming more and more accepted, but "they kissed her" will to most people sound like more than one person kissed her.

The best option is to use the character's name.

For example:

"Kelly kissed him"

0
-2

"he" is actually a so-called unmarked pronoun, in contrast to "she" which is female. People these days don't learn that or refuse to understand it and insist that "he" is specifically male, and that's the problem. If you want to be grammatically correct, use "he".

Some languages don't have that problem. In Chinese, the symbols are different but pronounced the same, and native speakers don't have the gender hang-up that so many English speakers do, and often confuse them when speaking, since they simply don't think that way.

Understand your audience: will the readers embrace the "royal we" pronoun, or find it constantly annoying and sometimes confusing? Write for your paying readers.

For non-fiction (I published a lot, back in the day of print magazines for computer programmers), I was taught to just use plural. They can be perfectly correct if you refer to the group of all users rather than a single hypothetical user, consistently plural. That doesn't apply to your situation.

5
  • 9
    ""he" is actually a so-called unmarked pronoun, in contrast to "she" which is female." But why would I want to respect some grammatical relic that treats male as default? Language evolves. – DM_with_secrets Apr 30 at 15:54
  • 9
    There are multiple different styles of English, and it's certainly not true that "he" is an unmarked pronoun in all of them. Laws are usually written in a style where "he" is used to refer to pretty much anyone. A lot of people use "he" only for people who are known to be male. And if thou thinkest that it's grammatically incorrect to use "they" to refer to a single person, since "they" is a plural pronoun, then I assume that thou also never usest "you" when speaking to a single person, since "you" is a plural pronoun, too. – Tanner Swett Apr 30 at 15:56
  • 3
    If you really think "he" is gender neutral, then you would have no objection to the sentence "everyone at the party wore his best tie or swankiest dress", nor to the sentence "was it your brother or your sister who could hold his breath for 60 seconds?". I don't think any competent user of the English language would think either of these is correct; you would write "their", not "his". – kaya3 May 1 at 16:54
  • 7
    I'm nonbinary, I use they/them most of the time, and when people use he/him to refer to me, that's misgendering. – CtrlAltF2 May 2 at 1:33
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – linksassin May 5 at 0:38

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.