Gender-inclusive writing: Guidelines for writing to or about non-binary individuals

Section: Inclusive writing

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Introduction: Writing to or about non-binary individuals

The grammar and sentence structure of the English language provide many options for writing to or about individuals whose genders do not align with the man-woman binary. By applying readily available tools of the language while respecting individuals’ diverse identities, we can create much more inclusive spaces for non-binary people through our writing. This article will discuss tools and basic principles for working toward this goal.

The term “non-binary”

It’s important to note that “non-binary” is not the universal or only term used by individuals who identify outside of the strict binary categories of “man” and “woman” or “male” and “female.” There are other terms that individuals use to more accurately describe their experience and identity outside of the gender binary, including the following:

  • agender
  • genderqueer
  • gender nonconforming
  • bigender
  • genderfluid

In addition, some Indigenous people identify as Two-Spirit or identify with a more specific term from their community’s history and language. These identities are rooted in traditional understandings of sexuality and gender that are not related to Western and colonial binary categories.

All of the above terms can describe very different experiences and are not interchangeable with each other or with the term “non-binary.” At the same time, the experiences of people who do identify with the term “non-binary” can also be very diverse, and not everyone will feel comfortable with the same pronouns or forms of address.

This article sets out general guidelines based on common practices in English. It can provide a respectful start, but there’s no substitute for following the lead of the individual concerning how they refer to themselves and how they want to be referred to.

Note that when the term “non-binary” is used in this article, it is for the sake of brevity and not to imply that “non-binary” is the universal term for all individuals outside of binary gender.

General recommendations

In formal writing in English, we often don’t need to refer to an individual’s gender at all. Applying the basic gender-inclusive writing techniques will help you avoid making assumptions about the gender of people you’re writing to or about. In cases where gender is unknown or irrelevant, these techniques allow you to write inclusively by avoiding gendered pronouns (“he” or “she”), gendered courtesy titles (“Mr.,” “Mrs.” or “Ms.”) and gendered nouns (for example, “chairwoman”). In this way, these techniques do contribute to creating a comfortable environment for individuals who identify outside of the gender binary.

However, different considerations apply when you’re writing to or about a specific individual whose gender is known to be outside of the gender binary. Some of the techniques may be similar, but in these cases, the main focus should be on what is requested by the specific individual.

Always listen and follow the individual’s lead

In a positive and inclusive workplace, people of all genders may clearly signal how they want to be referred to. For example, they might

  • include their pronouns and occupational titles in their signature block
  • provide basic information about their pronouns or occupational titles publicly on the Web (for example, on a professional networking platform)
  • signal, in their own correspondence or in conversation, what pronouns, courtesy titles, occupational titles or nouns they are comfortable having applied to them.

Paying attention to these signals is an essential starting point for respectful and inclusive writing, especially about people outside of the gender binary. Every individual is the authority on their own experience and their own identity; non-binary individuals often have an especially strong interest in sharing this information, because it helps to prevent others from making incorrect assumptions about them.

If this information is not evident from what is available to you, the best course of action is often simply to ask how the individual would prefer to be referred to and addressed. In many cases, simply asking will be appreciated as a sign of respect for inclusivity.

However, please be discreet and mindful of the context when asking an individual to share information about their gender identity with you. For example, it may not be tactful to ask this question of an individual when you’re in a large group setting or on an email chain with many participants. It’s almost always more appropriate to ask the individual privately how to refer to them in a given context or setting.

Pronouns and neopronouns

In many cases, individuals who do not identify with the binary of “man” or “woman” also do not find the pronouns “he” or “she” to be fully appropriate for them. In English, the singular “they” and its variations provide one readily available solution with a long history in the language. Some individuals, however, use one of a number of other pronouns usually known as neopronouns. And other individuals opt for a combination of pronouns or for different pronouns in different contexts.

The singular “they”

Some individuals who do not identify with “he” or “she” use “they” as their pronoun. Although “they” is often thought of as a plural pronoun, its use with a singular meaning has a long history in English and is common in informal use. Moreover, it has become standard practice in formal settings: every major language authority includes a section on how to use the singular “they” in reference to a non-binary individual.

The table below illustrates the various forms of the singular “they.”

Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
They prepared the briefing. I acknowledged them. Their briefing was helpful to management. That briefing is theirs. They wrote the briefing themselves [or themself].

As the table shows, the singular “they” has two possible reflexive forms: “themselves” (the standard form) and “themself.” Although “themself” is not yet in widespread use and is labelled non-standard in most dictionaries, it has been approved by some major style manuals or their publishers (for example, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Languages Association, American Psychological Association) for use in reference to an individual whose pronoun is the singular “they.”

Also note: When “they” is used as a subject, verbs that follow it should always be plural (for example, “are” rather than “is”).

With pronoun “she” With pronoun “they”
Over the course of a workday, Riley finds that she has to deal with a lot of unexpected situations. Over the course of a workday, Riley finds that they have to deal with a lot of unexpected situations.

There is no situation in English in which it would be correct to write “they is” or “they has,” and that does not change as we expand our use of the singular “they” in formal writing.

At the same time, the only situation in which we would use a plural verb for a non-binary individual is after the pronoun “they.” A verb that follows the proper name of a non-binary individual, such as Riley in the above example, should always be singular: “Riley is” or “Riley has.” We would never write “Riley are” or “Riley have.” Similarly, if we are referring to Riley by the noun “the manager,” we would never write “the manager are.” In all of these cases, following what sounds intuitive and natural is the best guideline for correct usage.


Some individuals use pronouns other than “he,” “she” or “they.” These are generally new words known as neopronouns that have been proposed for the specific purpose of providing non-gendered options. There are any number of possible neopronouns, but an example that has several decades of history is “ze” (pronounced “zee” and sometimes spelled “zie”) and its possessive form “hir” (pronounced “heer”).

Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
Ze prepared the briefing. I acknowledged hir. Hir briefing was helpful to management. That briefing is hirs. Ze wrote the briefing hirself.

Although neopronouns are less commonly used than the singular “they,” it’s essential to respect and affirm individuals in their gender identities and to use their correct pronouns. In contexts where the individual you’re writing about has requested or indicated the use of a neopronoun, follow their guidance, and ask questions if you’re unsure of how to apply the neopronoun in your writing.

Variations in pronoun use

For many people who identify outside of the gender binary, gender identity is complex. It isn’t always fixed and constant. As a result, pronoun usage can also be complex and shifting.

For some individuals, there may be more than one possible pronoun that they find acceptable in reference to them. For example, an individual’s signature block might indicate “she/they” as their pronouns. This generally signals that either set of pronouns (“she/her” or “they/them”) is appropriate to use when writing about that person. In some contexts, however, they might have a stronger preference for one or the other. If you’re unsure which is best to employ, you might want to ask the individual directly.

Some individuals, especially those who identify as genderfluid, may prefer different pronouns on different days or occasions. They will often signal these shifts clearly to those around them, and you should respect their identities when you write about them.

Non-binary individuals may have pronoun preferences that are strongly context-dependent. There can be many reasons for this, including comfort in workplace contexts that are still insufficiently inclusive. Always be considerate and flexible when an individual expresses which pronouns they want used to refer to them in a given piece of writing.

Lastly, some non-binary people may feel entirely comfortable with the exclusive use of “he” or “she” as their pronoun.

Courtesy titles and nouns

When writing about non-binary people, you’ll need to apply many of the general strategies for gender-inclusive writing and carefully consider your choice of terms and vocabulary. The sections below suggest how you can avoid gendered courtesy titles and nouns.

Gender-inclusive courtesy titles

When writing to a non-binary person in a formal context, you can omit the gendered courtesy titles “Mr.,” “Ms.” or “Mrs.” and instead use the individual’s full name.

Some people who don’t identify with binary gender prefer an alternate courtesy title. In English, the most common gender-neutral title is “Mx.” (most often pronounced “miks”). However, it’s best to check with the individual whether they prefer “Mx.,” a different title or no title at all.

Gendered courtesy title Gender-neutral solutions
Ms. Smith has dedicated many years to developing more inclusive solutions to gendered writing.
  • Dylan Smith has dedicated many years to developing more inclusive solutions to gendered writing.
  • Mx. Smith has dedicated many years to developing more inclusive solutions to gendered writing.

The same approaches should be applied in the salutation and other contexts in which you’re addressing a non-binary individual directly, as the following table illustrates.

Gendered salutation Gender-neutral salutation

Hello, Mr. Park,

Please find attached …

Hello, Jiwoo Park,

Please find attached …

Dear Mr. Park,

This message is to follow up …

Dear Mx. Park,

This message is to follow up …

For more information about applying gender-inclusive principles in correspondence, including correspondence addressed to an individual whose gender is simply unknown, see the article Gender-inclusive writing: Letters and emails.

Gender-inclusive nouns

When writing about a person who does not identify with binary gender, take care to use gender-inclusive nouns and terms. For guidelines and examples indicating how to do so, please see the article Gender-inclusive writing: Gender-inclusive nouns.

Gendered version Inclusive solution
Marie will be taking her maternity leave starting next week. Marie will be taking their parental leave starting next week.
I met the new consultant through my brother, Claude. I met the new consultant through my sibling, Claude.

Additional information

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© His Majesty the King in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
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