Using Non-Binary Pronouns (Examples and Test)

Non-Binary Personal Pronouns

Some people identify themselves as both male and female while others as neither male nor female. (A prominent example of this was singer Sam Smith in September 2019.) Described as "non-binary," many of those who do not identify as male or female prefer to use the pronoun they (and of course their, them, theirs, themself) instead of he or she. Occasionally, a non-binary person might ask you to use their name instead of a pronoun (e.g., Sarah, Sarah's, Sarah's self) when talking about them.

Simple Guidance

The following rule will see you right in 95% of circumstances.
Don't Use
Do Use
he or she they
him or her them
his or her their
Put simply, don't use the pronouns that identify the person as male or female. While that seems easy enough, it can lead to some awkward-sounding sentences as singular and plural concepts collide. More on this to come...

The pronouns only change when you're talking ABOUT one non-binary person.

Before we discuss the grammatical quirks, it is worth noting that this only affects you when you talking about one non-binary person. It doesn't affect you if you are talking to a non-binary person, about yourself (if you are non-binary), or to several non-binary people. The table below shows where the changes occur.
Person
Subjective Case
Objective Case
Possessive Determiner
Possessive Pronouns
Reflexive Pronouns
First Person Singular I me my mine myself
Second Person Singular you you your yours yourself
Third Person Singular
he they
she they
it
Sarah
him them
her them
it
Sarah
his their
her their
its
Sarah's
his theirs
hers theirs
its
Sarah's
himself themself*
herself themself*
itself
Sarah self
First Person Plural we us our ours ourselves
Second Person Plural you you your yours yourselves
Third Person Plural they them their theirs themselves

Grammatical Quirks

Here are two grammatical quirks associated with non-binary pronouns.

(Quirk 1) They is plural, but the person's name isn't.

  • He They is are taking his their exams tomorrow.
  • (This sounds natural because we have plurals throughout, i.e., they, are, and their.)
  • Jo is taking his their exams tomorrow.
  • (This sounds less natural. We now have two singulars (Jo and is) with a plural (their). This example is correct though.)
Even though the last example might sound awkward, their is routinely used as a singular in English. Look at this example:
  • Anyone who forgets their passport will be sent home.
  • (This example also has two singulars (anyone and forgets) with a plural (their). Using their is a perfectly acceptable alternative, actually a strong preference, to writing his/her. This has nothing to do with non-binary people. This example has been included to highlight that their is already used as a singular.)
Read more about they and their being singular in standard English.

(*Quirk 2) Use themself instead of themselves.

When referring to one non-binary person, use themself not themselves. For example:
  • She They is are managing herself themself.
  • (The word themself is still not listed in many dictionaries. If you try to write themself, your autocorrect will change it to themselves. However, when using a reflexive pronoun for one non-binary person, you should use themself.)
The growing popularity of themself as a standard word has been helped by the rise of people identifying themselves as non-binary. However, in truth, themself has been in common use for decades and has been gradually catching up yourself/yourselves, which does make the distinction between singular and plural.
  • You can do it yourself.
  • (Talking to one person)
  • You can do it yourselves.
  • (Talking to several people)
  • They can do it themself.
  • (Talking about one person)
  • They can do it themselves.
  • (Talking about several people)
Remember that they can be singular or plural (just like you). For example:
  • If a student cheats, they will be dismissed.
  • If students cheat, they will be dismissed.
Therefore, it makes sense to have a singular and plural version of the reflexive pronoun, i.e., themself and themselves (just like yourself and yourselves).

The Emergence of Other Gender-Neutral Pronouns

You might also have noticed other gender-neutral pronouns appearing. Ey, per, sie, ve, and zie are all recently proposed alternatives to he or she, but at present none is showing any signs of entering into common usage.

A Test on Using Non-Binary Pronouns

This is a test to help you with selecting the correct non-binary pronouns and associated verbs.
Interactive Test
Your score:

Click on each grey word and then select the correct non-binary version. (Be aware that some do not change.)



See Also

What is grammatical gender?