Why are pronouns important?
Pronouns are some of the most commonly used words in the English language. And as such, using correct pronouns is a simple and fundamental way that you can tell a person that you respect them.
Many of us get in the habit of assuming the pronouns of strangers based on their name or appearance. However, this isn’t always accurate - and it can be disrespectful or hurtful when one assumes incorrectly.
This is why it's important to ask others what their pronouns are before addressing them using gendered language.
What are commonly used pronouns?
- They are my friend.
- Let me call them.
- Is that pen theirs?
- When in doubt, ask the person themself.
- She is my friend.
- Let me call her.
- Is that pen hers?
- When in doubt, ask the woman herself.
- He is my friend.
- Let me call him.
- Is that pen his?
- When in doubt, ask the man himself.
- Ze is my friend.
- Let me call hir.
- Is that pen hirs?
- When in doubt, ask the person hirself.
*Despite They/Them/Theirs having widely accepted singular usage, the pronouns are still paired with plural verb agreements (i.e. are and were) much like the singular you. See Merriam-Webster’s discussion here.
** Pronounced “Zee” “Hear” “Hears”
How do I ask someone’s pronouns?
As increasing numbers of people feel safe identifying themselves as trans and/or non-binary, asking for someone’s pronouns is a relatively new courtesy. It may feel awkward or intimidating at first, which is why it can be helpful to practice. We’ve linked a helpful video on the topic below. With practice, it will begin to feel more and more normal.
One easy way to overcome the potential awkwardness of asking is to lead with your own pronouns when introducing yourself. For example, “My name is Laura and I use she/her pronouns, how should I refer to you?”
Remember that assuming someone’s gender and pronouns may be harmful to them, which is why asking is always the more courteous and respectful way to learn how someone identifies.
Pronouns: How Do You Ask? - Video Link
What if I make a mistake?
We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. It’s important to admit and apologize when we realize we’ve gotten things wrong. It’s also important not to get hung up on our mistakes. Over-apologizing can draw undue attention to the person you’re apologizing to and force them into a position of feeling responsible for comforting you.
The best course of action is to apologize and correct your mistake as quickly as possible, then move on. For example, “Malik said that he - i’m sorry - they will be here at 8.” If you realize your mistake after the fact, a simple, private apology is appropriate.
What can I do to be a better ally around pronoun usage?
One of the simplest and most powerful things you can do to help normalize asking for and using correct pronouns is to post your own pronouns on your email signatures, social media bios, and other places where you may be frequently introducing yourself to new people. This opens the door for others to respond in kind, and makes it easier for trans and non-binary people to post their pronouns in a similar way without singling themselves out.
You can also simply continue to educate yourself about trans and non-binary identities, pronoun usage, and other ways to be an ally. We understand that a newer social norm like this can be intimidating, and would love to help by answering your questions. Find appropriate channels to ask questions, such as our email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or other centers for education and advocacy around LGBTQ+ identities.
Also check out these great resources below if you want to read further!