General Question

simpleD's avatar

How do you refer to someone of unknown gender?

Asked by simpleD (3644points) March 31st, 2010

The question of gender-neutral pronouns has been discussed here in the past. But I’d like some advice on how to interact with a person of unknown gender. (I believe this person identifies as genderqueer.)

Since there is no generally accepted neutral pronoun, if I were to speak about this person in the presence of others, what is the acceptable way of using a pronoun? Should I avoid it and restructure my sentences to only include the person’s name? Should I ask the person how s/he wishes to be referred to? What’s your experience? If you are genderqueer or otherwise self-identify as anything other than fully male or female, what is your preference?

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32 Answers

Trillian's avatar

I would ask…

wonderingwhy's avatar

I honestly don’t know and I’m not a linguist so I’d probably just have to ask them how they prefer I address/identify them.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Another bad joke. A big burly biker couple set up a doctors visit for their marriage std testing (this was back when you had to have a syphillis test?). The doctor couldn’t tell which one was the man or which one was the female, so he asked “which one of you has the menstrual cycle?” The one biker replied “Not me, I only ride Harleys”
Oh crap. I screwed up with my gender terms. Sorry Meagan.

emoney1994's avatar

i would just be very polite and ask the person what they prefer to be called and dont jump to conclusions.

Neizvestnaya's avatar

Aside from using the name they game, I’d just ask.

JeffVader's avatar

I think in this day & age it would be advisable to ask….

malevolentbutticklish's avatar

“How do you refer to someone of unknown gender?” <== Pat.

AstroChuck's avatar

Damn. There I go again. I’ll probably be late to my own funeral.

Pseudonym's avatar

Norrie May-Welby

CMaz's avatar

By using their name. @AstroChuck has it right.

I would ask their name before I asked their gender. Referring to them as such.
Unless you are looking to get laid, what does it matter?

JeffVader's avatar

I think you should refer to them as ‘mit’. This is the name for the Martian 3rd gender!
Martians like things in 3’s.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

Ask how they identify and what pronouns they prefer. If they identify as genderqueer they will most likely not be offended and probably be glad you’re thoughtful enough to ask rather than assume. It’s probably best to ask in a one on one situation, if possible.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I tend to use their name or saying hir in place of his/her and ze in place of he/she.

ucme's avatar

The Russian shot putt he she me she team.

gememers's avatar

Ask the person you are referring to what pronouns they would like to be used.

Factotum's avatar

If said person’s gender can’t be checked on, for example an unidentified robber, generally one uses ‘he’ or employs torturous language to avoid gender-based pronouns. This can work for awhile but if one were to write a novel in the third person without gender identifiers it would become irritatingly obvious soon enough.

malevolentbutticklish's avatar

@ucme: Some of those “female athletes” have more hismones than hermones.

TheOnlyException's avatar

Do you mean a hermaphrodite? If you are addressing them directly then I doubt gender would come into it, just use their name. But if I am referring to someone when I am not sure of their gender I do as I am doing now, use ‘their’ or ‘them’ or ‘they’.

Keysha's avatar

I tend to say ‘they’ until I can find out what they prefer to be called.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@TheOnlyException No, I believe the OP meant someone who is genderqueer as was mentioned.

slick44's avatar

I dont think i understand. Do you mean to tell me you cant tell by looking at them? I mean if its a guy that looks like a girl, then my guess is they want to be addressed as so, and vise versa.

MacBean's avatar

First choice: Ask.
Second choice: Use their name. But ask ASAP to be sure.
Third choice: Avoid pronouns at all. But ask ASAP to be sure.
Fourth choice: Use the pronouns for the gender that they present. In my experience, even if it’s wrong, this will not offend. But ask ASAP to be sure.

ratboy's avatar


TheOnlyException's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir ah! sorry i missed that particular word

simpleD's avatar

@slick44: I can’t tell by looking, and the name does not offer clues.

I do like “hir” but I’m not sure if it should be pronounced differently than “her”. “Their” is just wrong, but it seems to be most commonly used.

The consensus seems to be to ask. I wouldn’t even consider it if the person had not self-identify as genderqueer on hir/their blog. If they hadn’t, and I was just unsure if it were even an issue, I’d probably use ‘their’ until I picked up more clues.

Thanks, all, for your input.

slick44's avatar

Sounds confusing. good luck

Factotum's avatar

I misread your question so never mind about my answer earlier.

It occurs to me that if a person chooses to deny you information necessary for referring to said person in English then you may reasonably choose either gender.

Regardless of motivation, the person in question is playing a game with language and must bear any responsibility for misunderstandings that come of it.

I agree with your use of ‘their’ in any case.

MacBean's avatar

It occurs to me that if a person chooses to deny you information necessary for referring to said person in English then you may reasonably choose either gender.

Yes. And if they get offended by your choice, chances are they’re a jerk who’s looking for a reason to be offended. We’re generally a pretty understanding lot; as long as you make an honest effort not to offend, we won’t be, even if you slip up. But every group has a few assholes.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Factotum This is not about a ‘game with language’ – it’s about the FACT that our language is limiting, for some of us, but thanks for understanding.

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