Pronouns are what you use to address other people when you’re not using names. The most common pronouns are she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and he/him/his.
For many cisgender people — folks whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex and gender at birth — the concept of pronouns often flies under the radar.
That’s because there may not be a conflict between their gender expression and their gender identity.
(This isn’t always the case. Someone may misgender a cis woman, for example, if the woman’s gender expression doesn’t align with their personal concept of “woman.”)
Aside from names, pronouns are the primary way people address each other. It’s important to be respectful when addressing other people.
You wouldn’t call someone a different name than they’ve offered — it’s the same with pronouns.
Being cognizant of someone’s pronouns and using them properly is a way to make space for people of all gender expressions and identities.
Pronouns are implicitly present in the English language.
However, not all languages have gendered pronouns. Tagalog, for example, didn’t have gendered pronouns until it was influenced by Spanish.
In English, pronouns can be used to address oneself as well as other people — for instance, “I” and “you” are pronouns.
English speakers have traditionally used the traditionally gendered pronouns he/him/his and she/her/hers to address others.
It’s often necessary to use pronouns when addressing someone rather than repeatedly using their name (or in instances where someone’s name isn’t known).
Neo pronouns aren’t as new as some folks think they are, though they have gained more attention over the past decade as cultural literacy surrounding gender identity has increased.
Ze/zir pronouns, for example, were first used in 1864.
Although the pronouns they/them/theirs, ze/hit/hir, and ze/zir/zirs are often perceived as “gender neutral,” it’s important to remember that the pronouns he/him/his and she/her/hers don’t necessarily imply gender identity.
For example, a person using she/her/hers pronouns isn’t necessarily a woman.
Some people eschew pronouns completely and instead are referred to solely by their names.
The reception of “new” pronouns has been mixed. Many people refuse to engage with the concept of pronouns because of homophobia and fear.
That’s just another reason to be respectful of people’s personal pronouns. It can signal to someone that they’re in a safer environment where their gender identity is respected and accepted.
Pronouns aren’t always a reflection of gender
Many people use pronouns traditionally tied to specific gender identities (such as he/him/his) without identifying with the associated gender identity or label.
With that in mind, you can’t assume someone’s gender by their pronouns. The only way to know someone’s gender identity is to ask them.
It’s also important to note that pronouns aren’t a preference. They’re personal and align with someone’s identity.
When approaching others about their pronouns it can be helpful to share your personal pronouns first, especially if you’re someone who is cisgender.
That said, not everyone is comfortable sharing their personal pronouns. It’s important to remember that many trans and nonbinary people can put themselves in danger by revealing their personal pronouns.
If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, and they don’t share them with you, using the more neutral they/them/theirs can be helpful.
Another way to learn someone’s pronouns is to listen to others when they refer to the person. This can be a helpful way to hear someone’s pronouns and learn how to address them, but it won’t work if you’re in an environment where everyone is meeting for the first time, or you’re alone with someone.
When someone shares their personal pronouns with you, they aren’t sharing a preference. They’re sharing their pronouns, and those are the pronouns you should refer to them with from that point on unless they later tell you otherwise.
Some people have more than one set of personal pronouns, such as she/her/hers and they/them/theirs, and if that’s the case you can use any of those pronouns when referring to them.
Generally, if you don’t know someone’s pronouns, you can use any gender-neutral pronoun, such as they/them/theirs.
This can be helpful in situations where you’re engaging with someone indirectly and don’t have the option to ask for or share your own pronouns, or when you’re addressing or speaking about someone you’ve just met or don’t know personally.
It can be especially helpful for those who are new to engaging with personal pronouns to practice defaulting to they/them/theirs when referring to people they don’t know, as this helps to eliminate the chance of misgendering someone.
Discussing personal pronouns with young people
Engaging young people and children with the concept of personal pronouns and gender identity may be easier than some think.
Children are often very curious about the world and receptive to information about how to engage with it.
To get started, check out:
- These tips from Teaching Outside the Binary, a resource created by middle school teacher Ace Schwarz
- This overview from On Our Sleeves, an organization dedicated to improving children’s mental health
- The Lollipop Book Club’s list of children’s books about gender identity and fluidity
Mistakes happen. Regardless of whether or not you’re engaging with the concept of pronouns for the first time, you will likely misgender someone at some point.
If that person corrects you directly, resist the urge to express feelings of shame or get upset. Doing so puts that person in a caretaking position, where they need to soothe and reassure you, and can call unwanted attention to them.
Instead, acknowledge your mistake, apologize, move on, and do better next time.
If you find yourself repeatedly misgendering someone — whether it’s in conversation with them, in conversation about them, or in your thoughts — you may need to do some personal work around your conceptions of gender identity and expression.
If you were raised in an environment or community where you haven’t engaged with a wide variety of people who aren’t cisgender, it can be difficult to move beyond seeing gender as a male/female or man/woman binary.
It can be helpful to refer to people in public, at home, and internally by their correct pronouns rather than their gender presentation as you see it. This will help interrupt the cycle of misgendering someone.
Building relationships by respecting others
If you’re resistant to someone’s personal pronouns and unwilling to change, they may choose to remove themselves from their relationship with you. That is their choice.
You can almost always repair the relationship by educating yourself and increasing your compassion and understanding regarding that person’s pronouns and identity.
It’s important to understand that no one’s identity is a threat to your own and that when we accept one another as we are we create a more peaceful world.
Shaming someone for making a mistake when it comes to personal pronouns isn’t productive. It can even create resistance to the entire concept.
If someone around you mistakenly misgenders someone, you can gently correct them.
If you’re in person, you may want to wait to speak to them, or, when speaking to the person who has been misgendered, intentionally use their correct pronouns. You can also ask the person their pronouns or reintroduce your own.
If someone you know is repeatedly misgendering someone, it may be worthwhile to talk with them privately and ask them why that’s happening. Send some resources (like this article!) their way in order to deepen their understanding of the importance of personal pronouns.
Discussing personal pronouns with friends and family
Not everyone is receptive to the concept of personal pronouns beyond the gender binary.
If you have friends and family who resist respecting other people’s (or your own) pronouns, you can send them resources and respectfully correct them.
You can also practice introducing yourself with your pronouns to increase awareness of personal pronouns.
If you want to learn more about personal pronouns, gender identity, and the gender binary, there are many (free!) resources available.
You might check out the following articles:
- “Here’s Why Gender Pronouns Are So Important” by Alison Caporimo for Seventeen
- “A Guide To Gender Identity Terms” by Laurel Wamsley for NPR
- “Actually, We Should Not All Use They/Them Pronouns” by Alex Hanna, Nikki L Stevens, Os Keyes, and Maliha Ahmed for Scientific American
- “Gender Identity: Why It’s More Important Than Ever to Educate Yourself and Your Family” by Nancy Schatz Alton for Parent Map
- “Top 10 Books About Gender Identity” by Lisa Williamson for The Guardian
You might check out the following podcasts:
- Gender Reveal with Tuck Woodstock
- EN(BA)BY with Gara Lonning, Maggie Dunleavy, and Basil Lee
- Queery with Cameron Esposito
You might check out the following books in written or audio form:
- “Beyond the Gender Binary” written by Alok Vaid-Menon and illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky
- “Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us” by Kate Bornstein
- “Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution” by Susan Stryker
- “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves” edited by Laura Erickson-Schroth and foreword by Kai Cheng Thom
Anastasia Selby is a graduate of the MFA program at Syracuse University and currently lives in Seattle, WA, where they work as a nanny and writer. Their writing has been published in High Country News, Boulevard, Vox, The New Ohio Review, Allure, and Tricycle Buddhist Review. You can find them on Instagram. They are currently working on a book.