WHY ARE PRONOUNS SO IMPORTANT?
I get asked this question all the time and I’ll admit that I’m slightly amused by it. It’s kind of like asking, Why are names so important? Pronouns and names are important to all of us. Getting them correct is one of the most basic ways that we can show respect to a person. And with tomorrow, October 19th, being International Pronouns Day, this is the perfect time to dive further into this conversation.
The question is, Why are pronouns so important? typically gets asked by people who are always referred to correctly. These folks rarely even notice the pronouns that are being used for them because they’re always the right ones. They’d understand immediately why pronouns are so important if people used the wrong ones for them. Pronouns aren’t just important to trans folks. They’re important to us all. A better question is, How can we ensure that we’re using the correct pronoun for everyone?
In this blog, I’ll offer some best practices for sharing your pronouns, gathering pronouns from others without making it awkward, and using people’s pronouns in respectful ways.
SHARING YOUR PRONOUNS
If you’re someone like myself, who never gets misgendered (i.e., people always assume and use the correct pronoun for you), you may wonder why you should bother to share your pronouns. Aren’t you just giving people information that they already know? Sharing your pronouns, even if they’re obvious, is a great ally action. Here are several reasons why.
1) When allies share their pronouns it normalizes the behavior, making it easier for others to do it, too. How awkward and “othering” would it be if the only people walking around with pronoun pins or pronouns on their name tags were the ones whose pronouns weren’t obvious?
2) Creating a culture where people display their pronouns helps to avoid those embarrassing moments when we’re not sure how to refer to someone. If everyone displays their pronouns, we’ll nail it every time!
3) Establishing a protocol where everyone is offered the opportunity to share their pronouns avoids having to single someone out by asking them directly.
4) Sharing your pronouns lets others know that you support all kinds of people, whether or not they conform to society’s gendered expectations.
Now that you have some excellent reasons why to share your pronouns, here’s some information on how to do it respectfully. Simply state what pronouns you use, don’t assign a gender to them. In other words, you should say, “My pronouns are he/him/his,” rather than, “I use masculine pronouns.” Along these lines, we should refer to pronouns like singular they, ze, and per as “gender-neutral pronouns” rather than “nonbinary pronouns.” People are nonbinary; pronouns aren’t. Finally, you should also avoid saying things like, “I’m a she.” Just say, “My pronoun is she.”
Here are some great places to share your pronouns: on your name tag or ID badge, on your desk or door nameplate, on a pin or bag tag, next to your name on your video conferencing platform, on your business card, on your social media pages, and in your email signature.
Consider adding “Why?” after the pronouns in your email signature with a hyperlink to this video called “Why Share Pronouns.” Help folks understand why normalizing the practice of pronoun-sharing is such a savvy ally action.
When I share my pronouns, should I share 1, 2, or 3 (for example: she, she/her, or
A. I should only share one. Why waste ink?
B. I should share two. It’s what all the cool kids are doing.
C. I should share three. It normalizes the behavior for those who use new
pronouns, like ze and co, and who often need to educate others about how
to conjugate them properly.
D. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus regarding which is best.
Although this may change over time, currently there doesn’t seem to be any
recommendations regarding how many forms of your pronouns you should share.
But apparently, all the cool kids ARE sharing only two. Sharing three is so 2020.
GATHERING PRONOUNS FROM OTHERS
Directly asking folks for their pronouns can put them in an awkward spot if they don’t
feel comfortable sharing. So, how do we gather pronouns in a respectful way? Here are
a few pointers for different scenarios.
One on One: When talking one on one with someone in a brief conversation, for
example, in the hallway with a student, you don’t need to know their pronouns. We use
the ungendered term you, so there’s usually no need to ask. When talking one on one
with a student in your office, it’s best to create practices where you’re giving everyone
the opportunity to share their pronouns. This can be done on an intake form or as a
standard part of your introduction during your first session. If you choose the latter
option, consider offering your pronouns first and use language that doesn’t directly ask
for pronouns. For example, “I’m Ms. Miller. My pronouns are she/her/hers. How may I
refer to you?” “How may I refer to you?” is a better question than “What are your
pronouns?” It’s clear what you’re asking because you’ve just shared your pronouns, but
it gives the student an out if they don’t want to share theirs. They can simply say, “You
can call me Jay.”
Small Groups: When you’re having a small group conversation, listen to the pronouns
being used by others, especially if the others seem to know each other well, and mirror
those terms. If you’re in a situation where you feel like the most respectful thing to do is
ask, use the techniques mentioned above.
In Large Numbers: The best way to gather pronouns is to create systems or practices
where you’re giving everyone the opportunity to share them if they want to. This avoids
having to single anyone out whose pronouns are unknown, and it indicates that your
office is an LGBTQ+ welcoming and inclusive place. Some great ways to do this are in
group meetings when folks are introducing themselves, on intake forms, and by placing
a bowl of pronoun stickers or pins in your waiting area. When gathering pronouns in
large numbers, give examples of the information you’re seeking, in case people are
confused by what you’re asking, and avoid using the phrase “preferred pronouns.”
When we ask people to share their pronouns, we should always state, “If you feel comfortable doing so” or “This is optional.” We don’t ever want to force anyone to share their pronouns. Noah, a transgender man, describes a time when being forced to share his pronouns would have made him very uncomfortable. “I vividly recall the anxiety around that feeling of not having told anyone I was trans let alone started transitioning. But I definitely knew I wasn't a girl and to state that would have been a rejection of myself and what I knew was true. That would've been a really hard time to say my pronouns because they definitely weren't she/her, but I didn't feel like they could be he/him yet either. Making pronouns optional made it so I didn't have to lie/disrespect myself or feel self-conscious of how masculine I (didn't) looked/felt.”
USING PRONOUNS PROPERLY
Singular They: Singular they (i.e., using they to mean one person) is the most
commonly used gender-neutral pronoun in the U.S. Grammatically it’s used the same
way you would use they if you were referring to a group of people. For example, you
should say, “They are going to be late for their appointment,” not “They is going to be
late for their appointment.” It’s now generally acceptable in written and spoken English
to use they to refer to one person. Both the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and the Oxford
Dictionary have expanded their definitions of they to refer to a person whose gender is
not known or to refer to a single person whose gender is nonbinary. They is a great
pronoun to use if you don’t know anything about someone. For example, if you’re
emailing about a student in general, you can say, “If a student would like to schedule a
meeting, they should call or stop by the office.”
Neopronouns: Neopronouns are gender-neutral pronouns that have not been officially
accepted into the language. A few examples are ze, per, co, and ey. Memorizing a list
of neopronouns and how to conjugate them can be overwhelming and intimidating. A
best-practice ally action is to be aware of neopronouns and learn how to use them as
needed. If you’re working with a student whose pronoun is ze, then it’s time to get
comfortable and skilled at using ze in its different forms. Check out the Practice with
Pronouns website to hone your skills! (www.practicewithpronouns.com)
More Than One Pronoun: Sometimes folks will share two or more pronouns, for
example, she/they or she/they/he. People do this for different reasons, including these
Some folks find that both or all the pronouns fit for them equally well.
Some folks feel that they fits them best, but they’re not offended when people use the more traditional pronouns and they offer those as an option to make it easier for others.
Some folks, like gender-fluid individuals, feel that different pronouns fit for them at different times.
Some folks use pronouns in English and pronouns in other languages to represent their intersectional identities and/or to indicate that they’re bilingual, for example she/ella.
If you have a relationship with a person who uses two or more pronouns, simply ask
them for guidance. You might say something like, “How may I use your pronouns in a
way that’s most respectful to you?” If you don’t know the person well, the best way to
proceed is to mix it up and use both or all of the person’s pronouns. This doesn’t mean
you need to change pronouns every time you use, one but do try to mix the use of their
pronouns every few sentences or with each new conversation.
Everyone deserves to be referred to correctly. Thank you for your efforts to help
everyone feel safe and included.
Jeannie Gainsburg is an award-winning educational trainer and consultant in the field
of LGBTQ+ inclusion and effective allyship. She is the founder of Savvy Ally Action and
author of the book, The Savvy Ally: A Guide for Becoming a Skilled LGBTQ+ Advocate.
Bursting with passion and humor, The Savvy Ally is an accessible, encouraging, and
action-oriented guidebook for allies to the LGBTQ+ communities. Jeannie has a BA in
psychology from Brown University and an MA in social work and social from Bryn Mawr
College. Visit her website and download free ally goodies at www.savvyallyaction.com.