I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on pronouns for characters whose gender is not yet defined. As I understand, the officially-accepted pronoun is they/them but I think there is a risk of the reader confusing this usage with the plural pronoun, and being pulled out of the story.
I am explicitly talking here about other characters encountered by the MC that have no gender (I am trying to write a fantasy piece about genderless beings) or where the gender is yet to be determined. For me, it is logical but the feedback from my proofreaders is that using ‘they’ is confusing as it may be a group, and then they feel like they have to re-read the section to figure out what the writer meant. My proofreaders are mostly non-native English speakers, which may have something to do with it - or is this everyone?
Any ideas for these genderless beings (I do not want to use “it”), or should I just use any of the alternatives like ey/em, ve/ver, zie/zim?
I went through the whole thread, all 155 comments. To be honest, the comments go everywhere and although it is very interesting, it does not answer my question directly (also, I felt some posts were missing like the original to 144’s response which seemed to be an info source)
The post also did not provide me with any ideas to deal with genderless beings and while it is important to ask people their gender, this is not about the MC.
This topic got closer to what I am trying to achieve, I guess whatever I choose will go.
Should I ask the same poll in a clearer way with more options? Maybe in the polls topic? This topic can be deleted then.
The entire thread I pointed you to was about genderless pronouns in use in a narrative dealing with NPC beings in a scifi published game by this company.
I suggest reading that game’s demo, if you have not played the entire game; that will show how one author put into practice the deployment of genderless pronouns for NPC characters.
Good luck with your project — you should design the pronouns to fit your narrative and the only person able to answer what they should be is you. The chart I pointed you to can only help for coding in the proper grammar, whatever the solution you decide on.
Edit: The link to @HannahPS’s code should also be useful, if you decide you need help deploying the proper scripting in your project.
Speakers of other languages that have gendered/pluralized pronoun endings might find the use of “them” in English to refer to a singular person a little confusing. Maybe you could explain that the singular “they/them” is an accepted use in British and American English (I am unsure about other dialects) before they proofread? It might be easier to read if they have the idea of it being a single person pronoun in their heads before starting.
Native speakers of English who vehemently object to the use of “them” as a single person pronoun are usually, in my experience, trying to contribute (knowingly or not) to non-binary gender erasure by engaging in bad-faith “ohhh but the first people to write in recognizable English did not literally codify ‘them’ as singular so therefore it must always be plural!” type arguments. If you encounter those types of people while you are testing, they probably aren’t actually legitimately confused.
Well, I can tell you that making a poll didn’t get me any closer to an answer.
People mainly wanted to discuss why I shouldn’t even be trying to do it.
The feedback I have gotten, on the actual WIP in question, was that using they/them for everyone was confusing at first, but as soon as people got used to it, it was fine.
I’ve since added a disclaimer about it in the beginning.
Of course, actually getting any non-positive feedback in the WIP threads is a general problem, so that might not mean much.
The way I’m going about writing it, is imagining I’m translating from a language that doesn’t have gendered pronouns, from a culture that doesn’t think in genders, and just considering how I would do that in a respectable way.
Absolutely this, as they all know full well in English we regularly default to them when gender is unknowable like the entirety of the internet anyhow. Some people will guess and try to use “he” or “she” in reference to someone they don’t know, but it backfires a lot. “They/Them” can truly be confusing if you drop too many pronouns and not enough names or if you’re referring to a group and a person at the same time which is when you get creative and switch wording around, but the argument that “they/them” doesn’t make sense in the singular is either someone doubling down on what they learned because they haven’t yet been introduced to alternatives enough or doubling down in bad faith altogether.
You don’t need to go looking for a new set of genderless pronouns- as others have said, they/them is acceptable. I’d suggest instead rewording sentences and changing context. It’s similar to writing a scene with two male characters or two female characters- you have to do some legwork to make sure the reader knows who ‘she’ is. Make it more obvious that the ‘they’ you’re talking about is linked to a single character. So instead of:
They weren’t sure what to do. They could go left or right.
Say something like:
The writer wasn’t sure what to do. They could go left or right.
Relax, it’s alright to use they/them pronouns. What matters is context and you have to make it clear that you’re referring to one person. Actually, using they/them for unknown genders is pretty common in detective/mystery fiction where the detective is dealing with an unknown culprit.
I understand your concerns about your proofreaders being non-native English speakers. But if you ask me, you should still be comfortable with using they/them pronouns.
If those proofreaders are confused, try explaining to them how the context of your sentence/paragraph implies the they/them pronouns used are referring to a singular person. However, if they do bring up valid reasons for the confusion, re-write a sentence/paragraph to make the singular use of they/them clear.
They are non-native English speakers and you can use your work to help them learn more about the singular use of they/them pronouns and improve their English skills. Your work is in English and it’s non-native English speakers who must adapt and learn to understand it, not the other way around.
However, do not use this as a reason to dismiss their concerns. There may be times where your work may legitimately be confusing even for a native speaker. If that’s the case, there’s no shame in it. Every author has a bad sentence, paragraph, or even a page.
Your alternatives are also a valid option. Since you’re dealing with genderless beings, you can say that they use custom pronouns since they are not satisfied with using human equivalents (this is best used if these genderless beings are a separate fantasy species).
I was trying with ey/em but that looks weird and was weird to see in the beginning as well. You just have to get used to whatever pronoun is being used anyway and for native English speakers they/them should be the norm anyway.
It all comes down to how it is written to prevent as much of the confusion between singular and plural as possible. Great examples and great advice!
As an editor, I’ve seen many different approaches to gender and pronouns in CoG games. My experience has taught me to just go with the flow there and use the pronouns the author has defined and just check for consistency and verb agreement. If it were my first editing job and if I were unfamiliar with e/xe/ze or other pronouns, I’d ask the author or managing editor if those were intentional, then follow their guidance.
There are some cases where I still appreciate a heads-up, like for gender fluid characters whose pronouns change without warning.
But singular “they” is a well-established part of English and a regular feature in CoG games, and a good copyeditor or proofreader should be able to handle that.