Pronouns are something which everyone is familiar with; every language has them, everyone uses them, and everyone identifies with select pronouns. Some individuals relate to the pronouns and gender that they are assigned at birth (cisgender, shortened to cis), but some do not (transgender, shortened to trans). Below is a brief summary on why some individuals change their pronouns and why you should respect people’s pronouns.
Whether or not you’ve thought about your own gender identity, you use pronouns. Most people are familiar with gendered pronouns, and associate them with a gender. For example, if I say ‘he’ in reference to someone, you know that ‘he’ identifies as male.
Except, that may not always be the whole picture.
Not everyone identifies with just one ‘set’ of pronouns. Perhaps you’ve noticed in people’s social media bios or email signatures something like ‘She/They’ or ‘He/They’ or ‘Any Pronouns’. Those are called Mixed Pronouns, and it means that person uses any of the specified pronouns.
Due to personal preference, the reasons are not always the same, there are articles you can read for a better understanding of mixed pronouns , or you can check out this ‘QuickStart guide to pronoun usage’.
Yet, more importantly than why, is how to use them.
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.
Most people like their pronouns being used interchangeably—some within the same sentence, others not—but when in doubt about the usage of these, just ask! Asking how to use someone’s pronouns will not offend them. If anything, it will make them more comfortable with you to see that you are trying your best.
When there are societies which legally and socially only recognise two genders, it is referred to as a ‘gender binary’, but some people do not identify within this binary. These people have various names for themselves, for more information check out this article explaining the differences and similarities between three of the most common terms with which people outside of the gender binary identify. Throughout this blog, I will use the term ‘non-binary’.
Non-binary people have the question of what pronouns do you use when your language does not accommodate your identity?
English has very few non-gendered pronouns, and they’re not as unfamiliar as you may think.
The most common in the English language is ‘it’. Frequently used to refer to inanimate objects, ‘it’ is less prevalent as a pronoun for an individual, yet is still used by some. More commonly used by non-binary people is ‘they’. This word already functions in reference to people in both plural and singular form, and it is not associated with any particular gender.
So, you have two choices, right?
See, ‘they’ has solidified itself as the ‘non-binary option’ and is associated with gender neutrality. Being gender-neutral is not the only way people are non-binary. Sometimes, people are not male nor female, but something their language does not accommodate for.
This is where neopronouns come in.
These are any pronouns which are not ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘they’, and allow individuals to better define themselves as they see fit. ‘Xe/xir/xirs’, or ‘e/em/es’, are just two examples of these. If you are unsure about how to use someone’s pronouns, just ask them! People will always be willing to give examples.
Correct Pronoun Usage
All this may be unfamiliar and confusing, however the most essential takeaway from this piece is that pronouns should be respected. Although you may not fully understand, trying to learn someone’s pronouns is a way you can make them feel valued.
I asked a few trans and non-binary students for their advice on how people may get accustomed to unfamiliar pronouns and their usage:
“As long as you are trying, people will appreciate the effort that has been made. If you’re speaking a foreign language you may pause to check you are saying the right thing and try out a few variations in your head to find the right one. You may not get it completely right first try, but that’s okay!”
“To many people, their pronouns are as fundamental to their identity as their name. As such, treat them as a fundamental part of your idea of that person. It is okay to make mistakes, just correct yourself, and do better in the future.”
“The main thing I’d say is that it will take time to adjust to those pronouns and that people won’t crucify you for slipping up. Initially it may seem strange or alien to you but it can make the world of difference to people you do that for.”
“Practice makes perfect, say a few sentences to yourself using the correct pronouns, and if you make a mistake in conversation, don’t make a big deal out of it, just say it again with the correct pronoun.”
“Start considering everyone’s pronouns, not just those of a particular person or group. We use pronouns for people, animals, objects, all sorts of things. Being mindful of that can help normalise unfamiliar pronouns.”
It’s okay to get it wrong. Correct yourself and remember for next time.
The Importance of Pronouns
In a work or university environment, a colleague, boss, or lecturer using the correct pronouns not only shows they respect and value individuals, but they also gain a mutual trust and respect from the individuals. No one wishes to be misgendered, it is unpleasant and uncomfortable, especially for those whose identity is different from the ‘norm’, whose pronouns change, or whose outward appearances do not match their preferred pronouns.
Moreover, there is also an element of safety as unfortunately there are people who actively discriminate people who do not fit the ‘norm’. Even less fortunate is that, in 2022 the UK has been listed alongside Russia, Poland, and Turkey as a country which has extensive attacks on LGBT+ rights, specifically for its anti-trans rhetoric. (you can read the full statement from the European Parliamentary Assembly.)
With this in mind, safety is a huge concern for those who live in the UK and being open about themselves can be dangerous. A simple bit of effort to learn someone’s pronouns, and you can help ease someone’s worries. You can be a trusted, safe space for that individual.
Student voices on what it means to them when people use their correct pronouns:
“When people look at me and choose to call me ‘they’ it makes me feel safe, especially when it’s people I don’t know all too well. It lets me know that they value how I view myself, and that they want me to know that they are a person that I can truly be myself around.”
“I feel as I am seen as myself, and that I am free to be myself. It lets me know that people respect that aspect of my identity.”
“There’s knowledge of acceptance, that you are safe to be who you are, that you don’t have to hide or present yourself in a disingenuous way.”
“I feel the person has respect for me and they gain my trust. If it’s a lecturer, I will be more willing to interact and work with them, especially if I need to reach out for help.”
“For me it’s a thing about Gender Euphoria; whenever I hear someone call me by my correct pronouns, I feel good about myself.”
So take the time to learn someone’s pronouns. If in doubt, ask them—whether that is asking for clarification, or asking what pronouns they use. Something as small as one word can make a world of difference.