“Ze” as a Pronoun: What It is & How to Use It

Increasingly, colleges are including gender-neutral pronouns, which has all of us wondering: how do we use said pronouns? Why and when are they appropriate? Why are they important? Stay with us, collegiettes, here is our guide to embracing everyone you meet's preferred pronoun.

What are gender-neutral pronouns, such as “ze?”

Gender-neutral pronouns are an alternative to the traditional pronouns “he” and “she," used to denote the preferred gender of the person that the pronouns describe. Gender-neutral pronouns have emerged as an alternative and a backlash to binary pronouns—they’re an option for anyone, regardless of their gender identity and expression. Gender-neutral pronouns are one way to support transgender and non-binary people who use them.

Many people find using “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun awkward and confusing. For example, if “they” is used as a singular pronoun, you might say, “Jonathan is coming over tonight. They want to do homework, and then bake chocolate chip cookies together.” Because “they” can also be used to denote a group of individuals, its use in this context can be vague and confusing.

Some people still prefer "they" as a singular pronoun, so it's important to use whichever pronouns someone has asked you to.

Related: 10 Things You Should Never Say to an LGBTQ+ Individual

This is where other gender-neutral pronouns, such as “ze,” come into play. These pronouns are designed to describe a singular person without specifying his or her gender identity. (Conveniently, gender-neutral pronouns also take the awkwardness out of constantly having to write the phrase “his or her.”)

Although many options for gender-neutral pronouns have come up in discussions, these are the most common ones according to Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog:

  • Ze: Can be used in two different ways as shown by the table above
  • Ne: This pronoun is considered gender-neutral, not leaning towards male or female
  • Ve: This pronoun is derived from science fiction, and is known for being unbiased
  • Spivak: These pronouns are similar to "they" and "them" but are grammatically single (i.e. "ey is in the building")
  • Xe: This pronoun is meant to be pronounced the same way "ze"

Why are gender-neutral pronouns important?

These neutral pronouns are becoming so widespread and adopted by colleges because they alleviate a common problem—taking someone’s gender identity for granted. More often than not, in casual conversation, we all assign the gender-specific pronouns “he” or “she” to those around us.

Gender-neutral pronouns force us to rethink our assumptions, and remind us that many people have a gender expression that isn’t in line with what we originally thought. Many people also identify as gender-neutral and without a binary gender—which is what prompted the University of Vermont to adopt gender-neutral pronouns. The university also allows students to choose the first name by which they want to be called, regardless of what their legal name is. 

"Gender-neutral pronouns are for those whose gender identity is not static or who do not identify within the binary, or who aren't sure what label fits them,” says Casey Anne Brimmer, a first-year graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa. “Challenging language that affirms the false binary, hetero-normativity and cis-sexism is important because these styles of language will never be inclusive of all identities.”

Allowing students to choose gender-neutral pronouns ensures that nobody is left out of the conversation, regardless of identity. And Casey Anne raises an excellent point: using gender-neutral pronouns is one way to make sure that all identities are included.

How can you use gender-neutral pronouns?

Using gender-neutral pronouns can be challenging if you aren’t used to it, but practice can help. Most gender-neutral pronouns are designed to take the place of  “he” and “she” and can easily replace them in conversation.

“I interviewed someone who is gender-neutral and uses the pronouns they/them/their," says Rachel Petty, a junior at James Madison University and a contributing writer for HC. "I just had to be conscious and be sure I was referring to them the right way. It may seem uncomfortable at first, but if you're cautious it will eventually become more natural."

When someone does request that you use the pronoun "they" as their preferred pronoun, it may take a little more conscious thought, because you’re so used to that use being labeled as "incorrect." One tip you could use is practicing with a friend beforehand, by using "they" to describe someone in conversation. If you speak back and forth a few times using the pronouns, it will become easier as time goes on, just like adjusting when someone asks to go by a different first name.

“We normally go over PGPs (preferred gender pronouns) when we introduce ourselves at the beginning of the semester," says Julia Marie Krom, a junior at the Gallatin School of Independent Study at New York University. "It helps to make it easy for people who want to go by anything other than the 'expected' pronouns." Introducing PGPs in a classroom setting can reduce the number of insensitive questions and comments that transgender and non-binary students receive.

If you’re involved in a group on campus, or are in any kind of leadership position, you can consider asking members to share their preferred pronouns when you first meet, rather than making assumptions. You can also introduce the concept to members of your campus community, such as professors, mentors, guidance counselors and tutors.

Gender-neutral pronouns give us all an opportunity to step back and realize that we don’t know what someone’s gender identity is just from outside appearances. It’s important to respect one another, not make assumptions, and ask which pronouns we should use.