Updated: Jun 28
Let's start with the basics: Grammatically speaking, a pronoun is a word that refers to a person. Most languages reference gender when using a pronoun, such as he or she. Some languages — such as Estonian — do not have a separate word for him or her. This post discusses neopronouns, third-person personal pronouns beyond he, she, it, they, one, and it.
Each culture decides whether an object is gendered, such as the French think of a table as female and Russians think of a tree as male. In the United States, it's common to use her when referring to an old car that needs to be cared for. Big dogs are typically he; small dogs are she. You see where we're going here, right?
What gender do you think of when you hear the word CEO? Flight attendant? Baker? How we gender items and roles in our day-to-day lives is a place to start examining our perceptions of gender.
Acknowledging that gender won't always match our perception is a radical act that actively breaks our bias. We own that other people's gender is not up to us to determine, no matter how we've been trained throughout our lives.
How we express ourselves includes how we present our gender. Mainstream culture is shifting understanding of how we greet people with an intentional nod to inclusive gender expression. Here are some definitions, good to knows, and tips about all things pronouns.
Gender isn't binary.
Referring to people only as he and she leaves out non-binary people and those exploring their gender expression. Gender expression is how a person expresses gender through things like appearance, behavior, and clothing. Assigned gender is what a doctor determines at birth. There is a lot of room for interpretation between these two definitions, such as gender expansive, a term for those that don't follow gender stereotypes and expand ideas of gender expression and identity.
Common pronouns include:
Ze is pronounced like "zee" can also be spelled zie or xe, and replaces she/he/they. Hir is pronounced like "here" and replaces her/hers/him/his/they/theirs. This list shows only the most common: There are 70+ pronouns in the English language.
Don't assume someone's pronouns.
When you're meeting someone new, an inclusive way to introduce yourself is to say, "Hi! My name is Brecken, and my pronouns are he/his," and wait for their response. If they don't answer with pronouns, don't push. They may not be in a place to share or aren't comfortable telling you their pronouns. It's just fine.
It's not preferred.
I prefer to have a hamburger over a salad today. Gender is a fact, not something I prefer.
When you misgender someone, own up to it right away.
It's not uncommon for you to make a mistake, and it's wise to handle it quickly, apologize, and commit to not repeating the error. It may sound something like, "Carrie, I'm sorry I used the incorrect pronoun just now" or "Carrie, apologies, I meant he, not she." Move on because dwelling on this is usually more uncomfortable for the person you've misgendered, not you.
Think twice before you take someone aside to apologize for misgendering. It will be situational based on your relationship with them, but really, 9.9 times out of 10, the person would prefer you stop apologizing and start using the correct pronouns.
Keep an open mind.
While it has historically been considered a dehumanizing way to reference trans or non-binary people, a recent survey shows that LGBTQ youth use it as the second most common neopronoun. We're evolving how we think about gender, so there will be changes, and it's a big deal to keep an open mind.
It's more than pronouns.
The English language has gender-neutral words that help us speak inclusively. Words like partner are better than husband/wife, for example. Start by familiarizing yourself with gendered language, and swap out words accordingly.
Add pronouns to your email signature and link to this article.
Review your workplace forms to see what gendered language you're using.
Add pronouns to the forms your department uses.
Talk to HR and IT about adding pronouns to other online and printed documents. Every step you take counts!