What Is a Pronoun? A Beginner’s Guide to Inclusive Language

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What is a pronoun? Most likely, you studied pronouns during your high school English class — but there’s been a shift in our culture, one that makes understanding what pronouns are more important than ever. 

Increasingly, people are adding their pronouns beside their name — in social media bios, on name tags at conferences, at the bottom of their Zoom windows and elsewhere. Often, forms at the doctor’s office ask patients not just about their pronouns but their gender identity, too. 

All of this to say, society is making space for people to offer their own definitions of who they are — not who others decide they are. After all, not everyone relates to the gender that might be assigned to them — or assumed about them — by other people. Whether you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community, someone who’s questioning their identity or an ally, it’s essential to know why using someone’s correct pronouns is so important. 

Everybody Has Pronouns

A pronoun refers to someone or something without using a noun. A few common examples include: it, she, he, they, me, who, and that. When invited to share their pronouns, someone might respond, “I don’t have any.” Yet “I” is a first-person pronoun. “You” is a second-person pronoun. And “they”, “it”, “she”, and “he” are all third-person pronouns. Everyone, and everything, has pronouns. Odds are, you just haven’t thought too much about it in the past. 

Most commonly, people use sets of pronouns like she/her/hers; he/him/his; and they/them/theirs. Take that first set of pronouns — she/her/hers — as an example. We’d speak about the person using those pronouns by saying things like, “She made an excellent presentation,” or “Her slide deck was beautifully done,” or “Those photos are hers.”

Many people associate “she/her” pronouns with women and folks with feminine presentations, while “he/him” pronouns are generally used to refer to men and folks with masculine presentations. That said, “she/her” and “he/him” are often described as gendered pronouns. A set of pronouns like “they/them”, however, is considered gender-neutral — “they” doesn’t have any feminine or masculine connotations, by and large. 

Some people may use the same set of pronouns their whole life. Others may change to another set of pronouns that align more closely with their deeply held sense of self or gender. Some folks might even change the pronouns they align with multiple times throughout their life, or use two sets of pronouns to describe themselves, like “she/they” or “they/he”. 

While pronouns can express gender, it’s important to remember that pronouns and gender are separate and not necessarily indicative of one another; someone might be a woman, but feel that the more neutral “they/them” pronouns feel better. All of these expressions are valid.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns

It’s likely that you might’ve referred to a stranger in a neutral way as in: “I wanted to talk with the hiker, but they were busy unpacking their tent.” Why “they”? Because we don’t know what pronouns the hiker uses, and it’s best not to assume their gender. Again, while “she” and “he” don’t necessarily connote one’s gender, they are historically and culturally gendered terms. “They” is gender-neutral — it does not take either side of a female/male binary.

Some people deliberately use gender-neutral pronouns to describe themselves. “They/them” is often — but not always, or exclusively — used by nonbinary people, who might think of themselves as a blend of femininity or masculinity, fluid in gender, or as having no gender — or anything across the spectrum of those poles. Still, not all non-binary people use they/them.

Whether they are nonbinary, genderqueer, or genderfluid — or they have another kind of gender-nonconforming identity — some people may mix or blend the pronouns, as mentioned above. A person might use, for example, she/they/theirs or she/he/they. While it’s not always the case, the pronoun that appears first in a set might be the one a person experiences most, or is most comfortable with, but they want to indicate that one pronoun set can’t accurately or fully capture their identity. 

What Are Neopronouns? 

There are also people who use “novel pronouns” — sometimes called “neopronouns”. These words are a bit newer to the mainstream lexicon and are devoid of any preexisting connotations, gendered or otherwise. A person might prefer “ze” (pronounced zee), “zir”, “zem”, “xe” or “hir” (pronounced here). This isn’t an exhaustive list; there are many, many neopronouns — after all, language is constantly evolving

Additionally, you might come across combinations of traditional pronouns and neopronouns — like “she/xe” or “ze/him”, for example. Remember: there can be as many pronoun combinations as there are people. It’s also important to note that some people genuinely don’t want to be referred to by any pronouns at all, opting to be referred to just by name instead. 

Pronoun Usage 101

Always Be Affirming and Respectful

Language evolves. Thankfully, the objections that people’s pronouns are grammatically incorrect no longer prevail — even the dictionary is on the side of pronoun and gender inclusivity. Even if you’re a supportive ally and in favor of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives or other workplace efforts to become more affirming and welcoming, internalizing changing social norms can be challenging at first. 

If you’re not sure how to pronounce someone’s pronouns, for example, be respectful. In the same way you might privately ask someone how to pronounce their first or last name correctly, you can privately ask a person about the pronunciation of their pronouns, or, if they use multiple sets of pronouns, if they have a preference for when and how folks refer to them. By using someone’s pronouns correctly, you’ll also provide a model for others around you. 

Misgendering and Correcting Slip-Ups

Remember: you don’t know a person’s pronouns until you hear it from them. Referring to people as they wouldn’t refer to themselves is called “misgendering”. Pronoun inclusivity helps everyone avoid misgendering, while fostering more welcoming and affirming spaces.

If you’ve never needed to think about your pronouns — if people generally refer to you just as you refer to yourself — that makes social interactions easier for you. At the same time, it might make it harder for you to grasp that not everyone is in your position. You might not know that you’re misgendering others and making their interactions harder.

Slip-ups aren’t necessarily offensive if no disrespect was intended, but it’s important to correct misgendering no matter the case. If you call someone the wrong name, you’d acknowledge the error, apologize and move on, referring to the person by their name going forward. The same is true of pronoun usage. 

By stepping up and making the effort to understand, you support others. By teaching yourself why language matters, you can relieve members of LGBTQ+ community of the burden of continually explaining themselves and their identities. You can help redirect others when they misgender someone, too — whether the misgendered person happens to be present or not. This action shows people we value our friends, family members and colleagues, and care enough to speak about them thoughtfully and with respect.

Introducing People

To be inclusive of transgender and nonbinary (enby) colleagues, normalize the mindful use of pronouns. Add your pronouns to your social media bios and profiles as well as your Zoom name and email signature. If you and others make this a habit, it becomes the default approach a majority of folks will take. This way, nonbinary, trans and gender-conforming people won’t feel the pressure of standing out or making the change themselves. 

In conversations and meetings, you can introduce yourself with your name, followed by your pronouns. This gives others the green light to share theirs, if they feel comfortable doing so. In educational settings, instructors can state their pronouns, and offer students the opportunity to do the same. This way, everyone is respected — because everyone has confidence in knowing how to refer to everyone else.

Note: In certain, situation-specific interactions, people might not want to state their pronouns — perhaps they don’t feel safe or certain. As a general matter, it’s respectful to use the other person’s name until they specify a pronoun.

Languages and Linguistics

Some non-English languages don’t rely on gendered nouns or pronouns, while other languages, such as French and Spanish, are very gendered. Pronouns can express a linguistic culture as well as a gendered or ungendered self. 

For example, pronoun sets like “she/her/ella” or “he/him/él” are used by many Spanish speakers. This supports inclusive language awareness in multiple linguistic communities. To replace the gendered “ella” or “él” (“she” or “he”), some end their pronouns with the “e” or “@” character. 

Linguists have used pronouns in nonstandard and creative ways for a long time, in a variety of languages. Characters in Marge Piercy’s 1976 book Woman on the Edge of Time use the gender-neutral pronoun “per” for everyone. The children in Monique Wittig’s 1964 book, L’Opoponax, use the gender-free French pronoun “on” to refer to one another.

All of this to say, language in its many forms empowers us to express our diversity and identities. Celebrating its potential to do so not only respects individuals, but it enriches our cultures and communities.