Pronouns are something we use daily in the English language. They are most commonly used in place of a proper noun (i.e. a person’s name) and used to address someone without using their name. People use them often when speaking about each other. When talking about another person and using pronouns, it is common for “he” to reference a man/boy or “she” to reference a woman/girl. However, making these associations can be wrong and are not helpful. By assuming someone’s gender based on their name or appearance, you may be misgendering someone and causing them harm.
What Is Misgendering?
“Misgendering” a person means that you referred to their gender as one in which they may not identify. Individuals commonly misgender others by using an incorrect pronouns.
Why Do Pronouns Matter?
The most common pronouns we use are “he” or “she”, which can be pretty limiting when it comes to people’s gender identities. For example, many queer, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and transgender people may not feel comfortable with these pronouns. Using the incorrect pronoun can then lead to stress and anxiety for these folks.
A recent study involving transgender youth concluded that using the correct pronouns helped reduce depression and suicide risks.
Using someone’s correct pronouns is a sign that you respect them and creates an inclusive space. Ignoring an intersex, transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming person’s pronouns erases their gender and implies that you think they do not exist or should not.
If you can’t figure out why calling someone by the incorrect pronoun is offensive or could be harmful to the wellbeing of a gender non-conforming person, think about it like this. Imagine someone addressed you by the wrong pronoun and then continued to do so after you’ve corrected them multiple times. Chances are, you would not appreciate this gesture.
What Are Some Commonly Used Pronouns?
While She/her/hers and he/him/his are some of the most commonly used pronouns, there are many gender-neutral pronouns that people use. Here are a few examples:
- They/them/theirs – these pronouns are quite common and can be used in the singular. You may not know this, but in 2015, “they” was voted as the Word of the Year.
- Ze/hir/hir p Ze is pronounced “zee” can be spelled in multiple ways (zie or xe). This pronoun replaces she/he/they. Hir is pronounced “here” and replaces her/hers/him/his/they/theirs.
- Using just a person’s name – Some folks do not use pronouns at all and use their name as the pronoun.
It is important to note that you should NEVER refer to an individual as “he-she” or “it.” These pronouns are slurs used against transgender and gender non-conforming people.
Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Grammatically Correct?
Even if your elementary school teacher told you back in the day that “they” were not a singular pronoun, language continues to evolve, and the rules are changing. Many previous rules as we knew them are outdated by now. Even Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionary define “they” as a singular pronoun.
Also, “they” make sense as a gender-neutral pronoun if you don’t know the gender of a person being spoken about. “They” gives more inclusive options and is accepted as a singular pronoun.
Plus, language changes every year and gets more and more creative. An excellent example is the word “Ms.” At one point, ‘Ms.’ was created to include cisgender women who didn’t want to be addressed based on her marital status. These days, no one questions its use, even though it was not always incorporated into the English language.
As language grows and expands, it is designed to meet the needs of the current times. Adding gender-neutral pronouns into the English language, in general, is a part of how language has been evolving.
What if I Make a Mistake?
When learning about pronouns you may be unfamiliar with; mistakes will happen. The best approach is to apologize, make an effort to do better, and move on. You can say something like “sorry, I meant (insert person’s pronoun)”
If you make a mistake in a group setting, you can apologize to the person in private at a later date. Do not draw attention to the person, or they may feel uncomfortable. Be sure to use the correct pronoun the next time you interact with the person.
If you make a mistake and don’t realize it until later, you can once again apologize in private and move forward.
Your instinct may be to talk about how bad you feel or how hard it is for you to adjust. However, this approach can be hurtful. It can also lead to the misgendered person feeling awkward and like they need to comfort you, which is too much emotional labor for them and not their job.
How Can I Help With People Being Misgendered or Encouraging Others to Use Pronouns?
If you don’t know a person’s pronouns, you can first listen to the pronouns that other people use when they refer to them. The chances are that if someone knows the person closely, they will likely be using the correct pronoun.
If it’s necessary to ask, you can start with your own first. For example, “Hi, my name is Billie, and I use the pronouns she/they – how about you? That way, you will know how to use that person’s pronoun and ensure others do too.
If you hear someone being misgendered, you can gently correct someone and move on – that way, the person being misgendered won’t have to be embarrassed. If someone continually uses the wrong pronouns, do not ignore them and, if necessary, speak to them about it in private. When you gently correct someone and stand up for them when they are being misgendered, you are practicing good allyship, and that person will know that they can feel safe with you.
Another way to be a good ally is by putting your pronouns in your social media bios, email signature, Skype or Slack usernames, or wherever else you can. Even if you are cisgender, displaying your pronouns shows solidarity to the trans and gender non-conforming communities.