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Understanding pronouns

Understanding pronouns

What is a pronoun?

Pronouns are words that we use to refer to the people that are talking (I, you) or someone or something that is being talked about (she, it, them, and this). Gender pronouns are used specifically to refer to people (ze, them, he, and she).

What is a gender pronoun?

Gender pronouns are pronouns that someone uses in reference to themself. These pronouns can be gender specific (she/her or he/him), gender neutral (they/them), and some have been created as an alternative to the gender binary (ze/zie/hirs). People's gender pronouns can change over time to match their identity and these pronouns may or may not always match their gender expression.

The most commonly used gender pronouns are she/her/hers and he/him/his. Typically, these are referred to as "female" or "feminine" and "male" or "masculine" pronouns, however, many people avoid using labels like this because not everyone who uses she/her/hers and he/him/his identifies as female or male respectively.

Why is it important to respect gender pronouns?

A person’s gender pronouns are an important part of their identity and gender expression, and for the LGBTQIA+ community, they are often one part of a long journey of self-discovery. Asking someone what their gender pronouns are and correctly using those pronouns is a great and simple way to show your respect for their identity. When you refer to someone using the incorrect pronouns, it can feel like you’re invalidating their identity and make them feel disrespected, dismissed, alienated, or dysphoric. 

Remember: While most of us are assigned gender specific pronouns at birth, it's a privilege to not have to consider which pronouns someone is going to use on the basis of how they perceive your gender.

How should I ask someone what their gender pronouns are?

When it comes to asking someone about their gender pronouns, it’s always best to be direct and ask, rather than make assumptions. You could try saying, "What are your pronouns?", "Which pronouns do you like to hear?", or "Can you remind me which pronouns you like for yourself?" If you’re new to considering someone else's gender pronouns, asking these questions might feel a bit awkward but if we all make the effort to normalize asking for and  using the correct pronouns, it’ll be as easy as asking someone for their name. 

A really great way to get yourself and others normalized to considering someone else's gender pronouns is asking as part of an introduction exercise. The next time you're meeting with some new people, you could ask everyone to share their name, pronouns, and a fun fact about themselves. Another really great way to normalize the use of gender pronouns is to add them to places like your social media or your résumé. The more exposure people get to considering others' pronouns, the more normalized it becomes. 

What if I make a mistake?

It’s alright! Mistakes happen. Everyone slips up now and then. The important thing is to recognize your mistake and correct it moving forward. If you catch yourself in the moment, you should say something like, “Sorry, I meant (insert their pronouns).” If you realize you’ve used the wrong pronoun after the fact, apologize to the person privately.

It’s really important to remember that once you’ve corrected yourself and apologized, you quickly move on. It might be tempting to elaborate on how sorry you are that you messed up, how hard it is for you to get it right, or how you’ll try harder moving forward but please do not do this! Excessive apologizing will only serve to make the person who was misgendered feel uncomfortable and responsible for making you feel better about your mistake.

What should I do if I hear someone being misgendered?

If you hear someone using the wrong pronouns, it is absolutely appropriate for you to gently correct them without embarrassing the individual who has been misgendered. When you catch someone making a mistake you can say, “Actually, Bree uses they/them pronouns,” and then move on. If you notice a person is consistently using the incorrect pronouns for someone, you should not ignore it! This can be a frustrating situation and it’s important for everyone to know that you are their ally.

In a situation like this, the most important thing to remember is that you should take your cues from the person who is being misgendered. It may be appropriate to connect with this person privately to check in on how they’d like to handle the situation. You could say, “I noticed you were getting referred to with the wrong pronoun earlier. I know that that can be really uncomfortable and frustrating. Would it be alright if I speak with them privately and remind them of your pronouns? I want to make sure that you’re comfortable and that this feels like this is a safe space for you.” Even if they’re not comfortable with you addressing that person directly, your actions and consideration will be greatly appreciated. 

Remember: No one person is a monolith for their community. Just because one person is okay with you addressing an issue like this doesn’t mean everyone will be. It’s important to check in with individuals to make sure your actions don’t make them more uncomfortable.

What are some commonly used gender pronouns?

Some languages, such as English, do not have a non-binary or third gender pronoun available. For people who are limited by languages which do not include non-binary pronouns, it’s necessary to create them, in the interest of greater equality. Here are several non-binary pronouns you might hear:


Note: This is not an exhaustive list of pronouns. It is always good practice to ask which pronouns a person uses.