You may have noticed more people talking, stating, or listing their pronouns recently. Maybe you’re noticing your friends adding things like “she/hers” or “they/them” to their social media bios or in their email signatures. Maybe a loved one has had a conversation with you about their pronouns. You may have been asked about your pronouns on job applications or healthcare paperwork or in social settings.
What is a pronoun? In case you need an English-lesson refresh, pronouns are the words we use to refer to someone in place of using their name, like saying “She is wearing a red sweater today.”
Some people may think that conversations about pronouns are a new social norm, but historians have found that people have been discussing proper pronoun usage since at least the 1800s. Over time, people have used different pronouns as language continues to evolve, according to research from linguist and University of Illinois professor Dennis Baron.
Today, pronouns come up often in conversations about the LGBTQ+ community and among those with diverse gender identities. “Pronouns fundamentally are often an expression of a person's gender identity and in that sense, an extension of who they are and how they want to be seen in the world,” Madison McCullough, a New York-based therapist who has experience working within queer communities, tells Woman's Day. McCullough uses she/her pronouns. “I think that it's important to use the right pronouns of people, so that you are affirming that you see them, that you understand them, and that you accept all parts of them.”
Even if you don’t have a lot of experience or haven't spent a significant amount of time or energy thinking about topics like gender identity, or you're not personally impacted by people not using or citing yours correctly, you can still start learning about pronouns, why they are important, and how you can start using them in your everyday life.
What do people mean when they’re talking about pronouns?
The sets of pronouns that most English-language speakers are familiar with are “she/her” and “he/him.” Some people use gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them” or “zie/zim” because these terms are a more accurate representation of who they are and their gender identity.
For example, if you’re talking about an individual who uses they/them pronouns, you might say something like “Taylor went to the store, but they should be back in 15 minutes.” If that person’s pronouns are she/her, you would say, “She should be back in 15 minutes.”
If you’re confused about what that means for you, just think about how you personally would want people to refer to you when they talk about you. Maybe you would feel most comfortable with a person saying “She’s over there,” or “He’s over there,” or maybe you want people to say “They’re over there.” It’s all about what works for you, what makes you feel the most comfortable, and what honors and respects your personal identity.
How you can start using pronouns
“I think normalizing the practice of introducing yourself with your own pronouns is really great,” Aspen Ruhlin, a client advocate and community educator at the Mabel Wadsworth Center in Bangor, Maine, tells Woman's Day. Ruhlin uses they/them pronouns. “It’s good to normalize the habit of doing that, because it communicates to people, ‘this is the respectful language to use for me.’”
Some ways that you can work pronouns into your everyday life might be adding your pronouns to your social media bios or profiles, adding them to your email signature, adding them on your Zoom display name, or stating them when you introduce yourself to others. For example, if you’re leading a meeting at work, you could say “My name is Jane Smith, I’m a sales director at the company, and my pronouns are she/hers.”
In some situations, it may be appropriate to ask someone what their pronouns are. But the website MyPronouns.org notes that you shouldn’t ever force someone to share their pronouns if they aren’t comfortable doing so.
Why you should consider sharing your pronouns
Some people might feel like there’s no need to state their pronouns, because it feels obvious that they use the ones that are associated with their gender. This might be the case if you’re a cisgender person. “Cisgender” means that a person’s gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, if your sex when you were born was identified as female, and you feel like you are a woman, then you’re cisgender. The antonym of cisgender would be transgender, which refers to someone whose personal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
But even if your gender identity feels like it's obvious, it’s still worth sharing your own pronouns in some cases because it can help make others — especially transgender or non-binary people — feel more safe and comfortable.
“As trans people, we often have to share our pronouns if we would like to be honored and respected for who we are,” Ruhlin explains. “Unfortunately, because of people who are transphobic, it can also put a bit of a target on us. When cisgender people make sure to share their pronouns, they're really normalizing the practice, and just making it safer for when trans people share their pronouns.”
Isn’t it grammatically incorrect to use “they” or “them” if I’m just referring to one person?
No. “They” has been used as a singular pronoun as far back as the year 1375, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It might sound awkward if you’re not used to saying or hearing it, but it isn’t incorrect.
“Language is always changing and evolving, and to say that there's a grammatical inconsistency is just actually not identifying the reality of how language changes over time,” McCullough explains.
Ruhlin also points out that most people actually do use “they” pronouns regularly, even if they don’t notice it.
“Let’s say you're at the grocery store and someone left their cell phone on one of the shelves," they explain. "It would make sense to say, 'Oh no, someone forgot their phone, I hope they come back for it and that they find it.' That use of singular ‘they’ is very natural for us to use and for grammar sticklers, it is grammatically correct.”
What do you do if you accidentally use the wrong pronouns for someone?
You might find yourself in a situation where you accidentally use the incorrect pronouns for someone. Maybe they’re using different pronouns than they did before, or maybe their pronouns are ones that you aren’t used to using.
“I think the first thing people should keep in mind is recognizing, 'Hey, I'm a human, I'm going to do things wrong.’ Now, that's not an excuse to not put in effort,” Ruhlin says.
“For example, if I accidentally misgender someone and I don't catch myself, and they have to correct me, then I would say, 'Whoops, sorry.’ I would say the correct pronoun, and then move on. I might talk to that person privately later, but it's going to depend on the situation,” they continue.
They also note that if you make a mistake with someone’s pronouns, you shouldn’t go over-the-top with your apology. Doing that can actually make things more uncomfortable, and turn the focus to you instead of to the person who has been misgendered. “Misgendering” means you’ve used language to describe them that doesn’t align with their gender, like calling someone “he” instead of “she.”
“If you misgender someone and they end up correcting you, it's really good to thank them. Don't make it over-dramatic or center your own feelings. But when someone corrects you when you have accidentally misgendered them, that correction is a gift,” Ruhlin says.
How you can be supportive
Practice, practice, practice. If someone is using pronouns that you aren’t used to, it might be a good idea to practice saying sentences out loud when you’re alone. Doing this can help you feel more comfortable using the person’s correct pronouns in conversation.
“While you're washing dishes, while you're driving home from work, when your hands are busy but your mind is free to wander, just saying something like, 'I saw them yesterday, they have new glasses. I like their new glasses,'" Ruhlin says. "Doing practice sentences like that can really help to get good at it.”
McCullough also notes that people should be aware of their own beliefs that come up around pronouns. Maybe you look at a group of people and figure you know their pronouns because of how they look, but remember: Your assumptions might not be correct.
“I think that people also need to be aware of any resistance or assumptions that are coming up and really try to push back against that,” she says.
If anyone in your life is going through the experience of figuring out what their pronouns are, McCullough says one of the ways you can support them is to be curious while respecting their boundaries. Don’t push them to talk about it if they’re not ready, but you can ask them what their pronouns are and how you can affirm them.
Finally, Ruhlin says that paying attention to pronouns is an important step, but it's just one of many ways you can make sure that you’re supporting trans and LGBTQ+ people in your life.
“Pronouns are certainly not the be-all end-all of respecting trans people,” they note. “Pronouns are really the first step I would say, the base, of being able to have respectful communication with people, and show that you actually recognize that when they say they are who they are, you're not trying to disagree with them."
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