WHAT ARE PERSONAL PRONOUNS AND WHY DO THEY MATTER?
In English, whether we realize it or not, people frequently refer to us using pronouns when speaking about us. Often, when speaking of a singular human in the third person, these pronouns have a gender implied -- such as “he” to refer to a man/boy or “she” to refer to a woman/girl. These associations are not always accurate or helpful.
Often, people make assumptions about the gender of another person based on the person’s appearance or name. These assumptions aren’t always correct, and the act of making an assumption (even if correct) sends a potentially harmful message -- that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.
Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment, just as using a person’s name can be a way to respect them. Just as it can be offensive or even harassing to make up a nickname for someone and call them that nickname against their will, it can be offensive or harassing to guess at someone’s pronouns and refer to them using those pronouns if that is not how that person wants to be known. Or, worse, actively choosing to ignore the pronouns someone has stated that they go by could imply the oppressive notion that intersex, transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people do not or should not exist.
When we refer to "personal" pronouns, we don't mean that these pronouns are necessarily private information (generally they are not), we mean that they are pronouns referring to a unique and individual person. Hopefully, you now have a fundamental understanding about why pronouns matter.
HOW DO I USE PERSONAL PRONOUNS?
When a person shares their pronouns, they are naming the pronouns that they want to be referred to by in the singular third person (when referring to that person while talking to someone else). Singular pronouns in the first person (when referring to yourself) or second person (when referring to a person when talking to that same person) do not vary. For reference, however, we have included examples of singular first person and second person pronouns, as well third person pronouns.
Singular first person pronouns (that you should continue to use, as is):
“I am a writer and wrote that book myself. Those ideas are mine. Do you like both me and my ideas?”
Singular second person pronouns (that you should continue to use, as is):
“You are a writer and wrote that book yourself. Those ideas are yours. I like both you and your ideas.”
Singular third person pronouns (that you should use as appropriate based on the pronouns the person being referred to goes by):
Each of the following sets of pronouns may be the sets that certain people indicate should be used to refer to them. Below, they are presented in the forms of most common usage.
Usually, the “they/them” pronouns set is acceptable to use when you don’t yet know if a person goes by another set or sets of pronouns. It is also possible to avoid pronouns, as demonstrated below under “no pronouns.”
Just because a person goes by a certain set or sets of pronouns is not indicative of that person’s gender. A person could be transgender or not transgender (also called “cisgender” - the vast majority of the population is cisgender) and might share the pronouns they go by. A person could be a man or a woman or both or neither and share any number of these sets of pronouns as the correct ones to use for them, but which set they go by is not necessarily indicative of their gender, even though for most people there is an association between the pronouns they go by and the gender they are.
She/Her: “She is a writer and wrote that book herself. Those ideas are hers. I like both her and her ideas.”
He/Him: “He is a writer and wrote that book himself. Those ideas are his. I like both him and his ideas.”
They/Them: “They are a writer and wrote that book themself. Those ideas are theirs. I like both them and their ideas.” Please note that although “they” pronouns here are singular and refer to an individual, the verbs are conjugated the same as with the plural “they” (e.g. “they are”). Also note that in this singular pronoun set many use “themself” rather than “themselves,” although both are typically acceptable.
Ze/Hir: “Ze is a writer and wrote that book hirself. Those ideas are hirs. I like both hir and hir ideas.” Please note that “ze” is usually pronounced with a long “e” and that “hir” and its forms are usually pronounced like the English word “here.” Some people instead go by "ze/zir" pronouns because of the more consistent pronunciation and spelling,
No Pronouns - Use My Name (example for someone whose name is “Lan”): “Lan is a writer and wrote that book. Those ideas are Lan’s. I like both Lan and Lan’s ideas.” If the reflexive component was important to communicate a message, you could use alternative language such as “Lan wrote that book unassisted” or “Lan was the sole author of that book.” Some might simply say "Lan wrote the book Lan's self."
There are additional sets of pronouns that some people might use (e.g. ze/zir, per/pers, ey/em, xe/xem, etc.). Please check with the person who goes by those pronouns to determine the proper ways to utilize them. Some people go by multiple sets of pronouns, and usually that means that it is okay to use any of the sets they go by. Some people ask that others vary the pronouns that are used within certain sets of pronouns. If in doubt about what that means for someone or to request examples of how to do that in practice, let the person know you want to be supportive and ask the person for more information or examples so that you can get it right.
Please note that there are also nonbinary, gender-neutral titles (e.g. "Mx." usually pronounced like "mix" instead of "Mr." or "Ms.") and nonbinary, gender-neutral language that can be used for everyone (e.g. "friends and guests" instead of "ladies and gentlemen").
WHAT IF SOMEONE MAKES A MISTAKE AND MISPRONOUNS SOMEONE ELSE?
Depending on the cultural, organizational, and situational context, and the personalities and positionalities of the people interacting, there are many different ways to act if there has been a mistake in referring to someone with the incorrect pronouns. People can easily correct themselves or intervene if someone makes a mistake, particularly when mistakes are made because of forgetfulness or ignorance -- occassionaly people get pronouns wrong because they are being intentionally and consciously hateful.
HOW DO I SHARE MY PERSONAL PRONOUNS?
The vast majority of people go by the pronouns sets “he/him” or “she/her.” A small but increasing number of people use “they/them” pronouns or another pronouns set -- sometimes simply because they don’t want to go by pronouns with a gender association (just as some folks go by “Ms.” whether or not they are married, because they don’t think their marital status should be a relevant issue), and sometimes people use pronouns that aren’t associated with one of those two most common (binary) genders because they are nonbinary (i.e. people who are neither exclusively a man nor exclusively a woman -- e.g. genderqueer, agender, bigender, fluid, third/additional gender in a cultural tradition, etc.).
Please note that many nonbinary people identify with the word “trans” (short for “transgender”), but that some do not; and many people who are trans are also men or women (binary). All people, whether they are trans or not trans (cisgender), whether they are men or women or nonbinary -- all people can choose to go by whichever sets of pronouns they are most comfortable with.
So, a great way to create and normalize space for people to share their pronouns is first to share your own. You can do this by saying, for example, “Hi, my name is Farida and I go by the pronoun ‘she’” or “I’m Yoshi and I’m referred to by ‘he/him’ pronouns.”
Sharing your own pronouns is a great idea, but it isn’t requisite. Keep in mind, however, that there is a privilege of appearing in a way that fits both your gender and the pronouns that many people associate with your gender. In other words, if people’s assumptions are correct, never having to name those assumptions begins to normalize the very process of making assumptions (which for others may be incorrect). Thus, sharing pronouns is a great way to disrupt the normalization and privilege of assumption.
If you are attending an event, you can write on your name tag the pronouns that you go by in the corner, near your name. Sometimes the pronoun alone is sufficient (e.g. “she”), though sometimes it is helpful if there is space to write “pronouns” first before listing which pronouns you go by (e.g. “Pronouns: he or they” -- note that some people are open to be referred to by multiple different sets of pronouns, as in this example).
If you are writing an email, you could include your pronouns in your signature line.
If you use business cards, you can also include your pronouns, usually near or below your name, for example:
Jamaal Johnson (pronoun: he)
There is no singular way to list and share pronouns. Many people say, for example, “she/her/hers” or “she/her” or just “she” and it’s generally understood that this refers to a larger set of pronouns (e.g. that includes “herself”) without having to list every one of those pronouns. When you share your pronouns, you may find that you get questions about what that this means or why you are sharing your pronouns. Hopefully you will feel comfortable explaining the purpose of sharing pronouns.
HOW DO I ASK SOMEONE THEIR PERSONAL PRONOUNS?
First, make sure that you have shared your own pronouns. Doing so is the best way to encourage other people to share their pronouns, to help make them more comfortable to share their pronouns with you.
If you are meeting someone new one-to-one, you might say something like: “Hi, I’m Akeem, and I go by ‘they’ pronouns. How should I refer to you?” Of course, if you are meeting someone who isn’t familiar with sharing personal pronouns, be prepared to explain that people often make assumptions about whether someone goes by “he” or “she” or another set of pronouns (e.g. “they” or “ze”) based on their appearance, and that the only way to really know how someone will feel respected is to ask what pronouns they go by. Usually offering up that the vast majority of people either go by “he” or by “she” helps indicate to the other person what the typical response is that they might give.
We don’t recommend ever forcing people to share their pronouns. However, people could be invited or encouraged to do so. In a group setting where you are a leader, here is one example of how you could conduct a round of introductions:
“Welcome to our meeting. Before we begin, we’d like to go around and share our names and personal pronouns. For those who haven’t done this before, this is a way that we can avoid assumptions, particularly about gender. What may seem obvious may actually be incorrect, and please keep in mind that while many people associate “he” or “she” as meaning men or women, respectively, this isn’t always the case. This is not about sharing your gender or private information, that is not what I’m asking for. I’m only asking for which pronouns you want to be referred to by, because these are a part of the English language in how we typically refer to people. So, for most people, that means they either go by 'she' and 'her' pronouns or they go by 'he' and 'him' pronouns. Some people go by 'they' and 'them' pronouns or another set of pronouns or another way of being referred to. However, for most people in this room you’d simply say something like 'Hi, I’m Lesley and I go by "he" pronouns' or 'Hi, I’m Jamie and I go by "she" pronouns' and then turn to the next person. If you don’t understand what I'm asking, or if you feel that you are uncomfortable sharing or unable to participate in a respectful way, it's okay to just share your name. But if you feel comfortable to share, and you know that typically you go by a certain set of pronouns and are good with that, let us know. Please also keep in mind that what people in this room share today is just what people are sharing today in this space and time, and that people may change their names or pronouns or go by different ones in another space. Does anyone have a question before we begin our introductions?”
WHAT ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AND LINKS CAN HELP ME?
Please note that no resource is perfect or comprehensive, including this website. We encourage you to look at many resources, and to really get to know and speak with trans people and gender nonconforming people whose lives are impacted by pronouns more profoundly than for most. Since asking personal questions of acquaintances in order to educate yourself might be a bad idea, and places a burden on already marginalized populations, a good way to learn can be through texts and videos, such as the ones below.
Wikipedia maintains several excellent articles related to personal pronouns:
There are many YouTube videos that help to explain personal pronouns and trans/genderqueer identity.
This information was originally published by MY PRONOUNS.ORG RESOURCES ON PERSONAL PRONOUNS. For additional information about pronouns please visit https://www.mypronouns.org/