Pronouns – what are they, and why do they matter?
A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (like “I” or “you”) or someone or something that is being talked about (like “she”, “it”, “them”, and “this”). The English language (as well as many others) has gender-specific personal pronouns, traditionally “he/him/his” for the masculine and “she/her/hers” for the feminine. Some folks, especially trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming individuals, may choose to use gender-neutral pronouns, such as “they/them/theirs”, “ze/zir/zirs”, or “per/per/pers”.
Correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity – or really, just your respect for them as a human being. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, alienated, or dysphoric (often all of the above).
Important note: A person’s pronouns don’t always “match up” with their gender identity (a person’s deeply personal, internal sense of their own gender) and/or their gender expression (the ways in which a person might choose to physically or visually express their gender, such as through clothing, hair, etc.)! Just like gender identity, you can’t know (and therefore shouldn’t assume) what a person’s pronouns are until they tell you.
Contrary to popular belief, the use of the pronoun “they” to refer to a single person has existed in English speech and writing for centuries. Because most of us are taught when we’re learning to read and write not to use “they” as singular, it can definitely be hard to wrap your head around. When you first meet a person who uses “they” pronouns, it will probably have to be something you are very conscious about practicing. However, I can promise you that you already use singular “they” every single day – just unconsciously! Think about phrases like “Did someone leave their coffee cup at the table?” or “I’ll call them back when I have a second.” Normal!
What if I make a mistake?
Using the wrong name or pronoun for someone (also called “misgendering” them) can often happen unintentionally, particularly if you are just learning about the importance of personal pronouns, or if you’ve known a person by a different name or different pronouns previously. If this happens – do apologize! Your apology should be timely, brief, sincere, and private if necessary. Be sure not to make it about you, or turn it on the person you’ve misgendered, such as by guilting them, talking about “how hard it is to remember”, or anything of that sort. Saying something like, “I’m so sorry, I am going to practice and do better!” goes a long way.
Should I ask people their pronouns?
There’s mostly nothing wrong with asking – a lot of people will probably appreciate it! However, it’s also important to note that not all folks feel safe or comfortable sharing that information straight away, and you shouldn’t take that personally. A good practice is to show people you are aware of pronouns and their importance by incorporating pronoun usage into your own introduction, i.e.: “I’m Meg, I’m from Utah, I studied English in college, and my pronouns are they/them!”. If people are confused as to what gender pronouns are, this can also be a teaching opportunity.
The more we all include our pronouns in our daily lives and introductions, the more people who are often misgendered feel able to do so, and get to be referred to in the ways that validate their identities and experiences. It’s an important and powerful tool for allyship! Are your pronouns in your email signature? In your bio on your website? On your nametag?
As a way to educate and spread awareness, we encourage all members of the UM community to link this webpage to wherever they list their pronouns in a digital format.
Pronouns Handout (Printable PDF)
Merriam-Webster Dictionary – Singular ‘They’
As/Is Video: Why Pronouns Matter For Trans People
True Colors United: He, She, They, Ze? Gender Pronouns Explained.