So: your friend just told you they go by they/them, or you read that a celeb you love goes by a gender neutral pronoun and you want to respect their identity and refer to them properly when tweeting about them, or maybe you’re thinking about switching up your own pronouns?
If any of the above applies to you (or, yk, even if it doesn’t), you may have a few Qs about the wonderful world of pronouns.
Here’s everything you need to know about pronouns, how to ask someone what their pronoun is, and what to do if someone misgenders you.
What are pronouns?
Pronouns are words we used to refer to people when we’re not calling them by their names.
Ya know, like he, she or they.
As ACON’s trans-inclusive encyclopedia Transhub mentions, while some languages define words as feminine or masculine, words are rather genderless in the English language, meaning that pronouns have a special place in the English language because they can indicate someone’s gender.
While some people may find that their experience with their gender, self-expression or sexuality is related to their own journey with their personal pronouns, this may not be the case for everyone.
Either way, using someone’s correct pronoun is a small and simple way to respect someone, their gender and identity, and let them know that they’re in a safe space.
How do pronouns differ?
The way people use and relate to their pronouns differs between person to person. Their relationship with their chosen pronouns and how they identify may, much like their gender identity and sexuality, change over time.
Someone can have one or more than one pronoun (there’s no fixed number). People with more than one pronoun often have what’s called a preferred pronoun, a pronoun within the pronouns they identify with that they prefer to be referred to and identified with.
If you know someone only has one pronoun, you shouldn’t refer to that as their preferred pronoun. Doing so could imply that you think they have more than one and runs the risk of misgendering them, which is the last thing you want to do to a trans or non-binary pal of yours.
What are the different types of pronouns?
According to the Transhub, pronouns can generally be broken down into three types: gender pronouns, gender neutral pronouns and neo-pronouns.
Gender pronouns are the standardised he/him and she/her pronouns. They’re generally regarded as traditionally masculine and feminine.
Gender neutral pronouns refer to they/them, and, according to non-binary performer Jake Edwards in a pronoun explainer video on MTV, have existed since the 14th century.
Neo-pronouns are pronouns that are used as an alternative to they/them. They include, but are not limited to, xe/xem/xyr, ze/hir/hirs and ey/em/eir. While most neo-pronouns were introduced in the English language in the 20th century, some have been documented in English dialects from the 18th century.
As Minus18 adds, there’s also personal pronouns, which are pronouns unique to an individual person.
How do I tell what my pronoun is and start using one?
Ultimately, remember that no one can decide what your pronoun is except you.
Your relationship with your pronouns and how you discover them differs from other people. If you want to start experimenting with a pronoun, it’s best recommended you try it with someone you trust, either a close friend or family member, and see how you feel about it.
Again, no one can decide your pronouns except you. Your experience with pronouns doesn’t have to be fixed and finite. You can play around with them to see what you like.
As Jake Edwards explains, they identify as non-binary and use he/they pronouns, because they “feel a connection to masculinity but often feel very fluid and unconstrained by masculine ideas.” It really is to each their own here.
How do I ask someone what theirs are (respectfully)?
FYI, asking someone what their pronoun is isn’t rude, rather it actually shows you respect their gender and identity.
It can be a bit awkward to navigate how to at first but a simple, “hey, just fyi, what’s your pronoun?” via text works. If you’re browsing a cutie’s insta and are about to slide into their DMs, check their bio quickly, as some people tend to put their pronouns in there, so have a look at that before you ask.
If in person, a simple polite question works. And, if you aren’t sure of someone’s gender or pronoun, and are too shy to ask, you may feel more comfortable to use they/them until they decide to tell you otherwise.
When asking, it’s important to know it isn’t your right to know someone’s pronoun and people are not obligated to share that information with you. But, a simple open question and remember to check yourself and your privilege goes a looong way.
As Minus18 says, “remember to always ask people what they prefer.”
“Some people still might not openly use their new pronouns around everyone, like certain family members or friends, so check in and make sure not to ‘out’ anyone.”
HOW DO I TELL PEOPLE ABOUT MY PRONOUNS?
When telling someone your pronoun, you can use the same format as asking. If you feel comfortable, the easiest way is to give them a simple, “hey, just a quick fyi, my pronouns are he/him and they/them.”
As mentioned earlier, it can grow tiring having to tell people individually. If you’re in this boat, know you can always pin it to your social media bios and make a post announcing it. Just remember to check if you’re in a safe space and surround yourself with supportive people.
What do I do if someone uses the wrong one?
The golden rule here is don’t feel obliged to tell someone if you don’t want to. Assess the situation you’re in and the people you’re with. Sometimes, we can’t always be in our perfect safe space or surrounded by our support network, and that can suck.
If someone misgenders you, and you feel comfortable enough to correct them, you can quietly pull them aside and remind them of your pronouns or correct them anytime they misgender you to you in a conversation.
Know that it may take some practice for some people to remember your pronoun, and that if they do misgender, they often don’t mean it and aren’t aware. A quick reminder will, over time, get them in the right habit.
If you’re among people that you think might not respect your gender identity, or are around family members that have yet to come around, turn to someone you trust if they’re nearby and let them know if you have a preferred pronoun in that situation.
And, if you misgender someone or refer to them by the wrong pronoun, check in with yourself and apologise. Remember to correct yourself and not beat yourself up about it. It can take a while to mentally change the way you previously referred to someone in your head so as long as you’re making an effort, don’t feel guilty.