What is a pronoun and why do they matter?
Pronouns are words that replace nouns in a sentence, such as “you,” “we,” or “they.” Most of the time we use pronouns without giving them a second thought, but when we’re working to be inclusive of people from all gender identities, it is important to consider our use of gendered pronouns when referring to people. A person’s pronouns is part of a person’s identity, just like a name is. It’s important that like a person’s name, we take the time to learn a person’s pronouns rather than making assumptions about how to refer to them in conversation or writing. While it may be our habit to refer to everyone as “he” or “she” based on appearances, we recognize that gender is a spectrum and we can’t assume a person’s gender or a person’s pronouns based on appearances.
What are some pronoun sets and what do they mean?
These pronouns can refer to people who identify as boys or men, but are not limited to male people. While he can be an affirming pronoun for some people, we can’t assume that all people who appear to be masculine or affirm a male identity use he/him/his pronouns.
Similar to the he/him/his set, these pronouns can refer to people who identify as girls or women, but are not limited to female-identified people. Likewise, we can’t assume that all people we assume or know to be female use she/her/hers pronouns.
In addition to its use as a plural pronoun, they/them/their has a rich history of use as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary sources the singular they as far back as 1375. They is often used in reference to a singular person whose gender pronouns are unknown, such as in the sentences “Someone left their umbrella here. How can we find out who they are?” or “I’m not sure what their pronouns are. I should ask them next time.” It’s also very important to honor that some people specifically use they/them/their pronouns instead of he or she to represent their identity outside of the gender binary.
The ze/hir, ze/zir pronoun sets come from the trans community as another gender-neutral pronoun set. It’s up to each individual to decide which pronoun best fits them and their identities. Ze is typically pronounced like the letter Z. Hir is typically pronounced like the word “here.” Zir is typically pronounced like “here” with a z in front.
The xe/xem pronoun set also comes from the trans community as another gender-neutral pronoun set. Xe is typically pronounced like the letter Z. Xem is typically pronounced like the word “them” but with a z in place of th. Xir is typically pronounced like “here” with a z in front.
Just use my name!
Like identities, pronouns can be complex and fluid. Some people don’t use pronouns, some people use different pronouns in different settings, and sometimes we forget to ask for pronouns or aren’t comfortable doing so. It’s appropriate to use the name a person shares with you.
There are many other pronoun sets that exist as well. For a more comprehensive list, check out this resource compiled by Dr. Dennis Baron.
How do I ask for a person’s pronouns?
Just ask! We encourage our allies to ask rather than assume a person’s pronouns. Similar to a name, we can’t know how to best respect a person in conversation without introductions. We encourage you to introduce yourself with your own pronouns to then open the door for others who feel comfortable sharing their names and pronouns with you to do so. A phrase you might use is “My name is [your name] and I use the pronouns [your pronouns]. Are there any names or pronouns I can use to best respect you?”
It’s okay if a person does not want to share their pronouns with you. Make sure that you don’t force someone to share their pronouns--especially in a public space. If someone doesn’t share their pronouns with you, you can always use their name.
What if I make a mistake?
If you misgender someone, we have a few steps for you to keep in mind:
Realize your impact. You may have hurt that person by misgendering or possibly outing them in a public setting. Focus on how you can support the person you misgendered.
- Apologize. Remember not to out someone in apologies in public settings. Sometimes a quick apology is most appropriate.
Follow up in private if necessary. Remember it’s not about making yourself feel better, but identifying ways to support a person who you may have unintentionally disrespected and hurt. Ask them if they need anything from you and share your plans to getting their pronouns right.
Commit to correcting your behavior. Practicing a person’s pronouns out loud in a private setting is a helpful strategy for changing the language you use. If you need to practice pronouns with a safe person, you’re welcome to use the LGBT* Center staff as a resource.
Move forward. Breaking your habits may take some time, but focus on why it’s important to get a person’s pronouns and names right. You may also find that if you misgender a person, they may want space from you. Respect what they need and commit yourself to the inclusive practices you value.
What else can I do to be inclusive?
Add your pronouns to your e-mail
Talk to your supervisor about adding your pronouns to your business cards
Add your pronouns to your University name badges order
Consider adding a line for pronouns in any intake forms, information cards, or name displays you might distribute
- Participate in Safe Zone Ally training
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9z6V2ygPprk (University of Iowa’s Pronoun Video)