Pronouns matter. Apart from name, they are the main way we address other humans in conversation, thought, and identity. So understanding them and getting them right is vital.
Let’s start by defining the concept. Pronouns are the words we use when referring to another person. The three sets you will hear most often are:
The feminine: she/her/hers
The non-binary/gendered: singular they/them/theirs
The masculine: he/him/his
While other sets exist, these are the ones by far most utilized in everyday language. The feminine and masculine are the most commonly used because of the ingrained binary that society has faced prior, but it can be harmful to guess pronouns. If you have not been expressly told someone’s gender, do not assume it. Instead, try introducing yourself and your own pronouns so they feel comfortable doing the same.
The singular “they” (which has a long history of non-gendered use within the English language, dating back to the 1400’s and used by authors like Jane Austen and Shakespeare) is the most commonly adopted gender-neutral noun, though others do exist. We already use “they” in everyday language. Think of the phrases: “Who do they think they are?” or “You showed them!” We use this language daily, so we have all the skills already. We just need to learn to use them.
Learning new pronouns when your brain has been wired to the binary normative of feminine and masculine can take practice, but learning and growing are an important part of our community and being a human in general. Don’t be afraid to mess up — messing up is part of life. As long as you learn from mistakes, get better, try harder, and be more considerate. And, if you find yourself in a situation where you have been corrected, thank the person for informing you and proceed from there.
Pronouns are some of the most fundamental ways we can be good allies and considerate humans. To respect someone’s pronouns is to respect them, their experience, and their identity. Pronouns can evolve as well, both situationally and because of the fluidity of gender. Respecting pronouns is one the simplest, easiest, and most fundamental ways to show respect and consideration for others.
Listen and respect when someone tells you how to refer to them and understand that they owe you no explanation if their pronouns or identity do shift. Believe and respect what people tell you. It is not for you to question. It is not yours to decide. What people say about who they are is valid. No questions asked.
Since this article was first published in 2018, pronoun usage has evolved exponentially—both in terms of widespread adoption and our knowledge of gendered languages. It’s become common for pronouns to be listed on social media profiles, email signatures, and name tags, and introductions will often come with preferred identifiers.
“Hi, my name is Sarah—she/her/hers.”
Multi-pronoun usage has also become more common, such as “She/They,” “He/Them,” or any other combinations for which a person identifies. These can mean different things for different people, but it is often a way of expressing comfort with fluidity on the gender spectrum.
The more current widespread knowledge of gender identities and pronoun acceptance would have amazed my 2018 self when I first drafted this article. We have grown so much in the past four years, but just like any progress, there is still a far way to go. As we continue to learn and evolve, the core of solution remains the same: be kind, be respectful, and be open to education from those willing to teach you more about themselves.