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JOY BLOG

Pronouns 101: How to use pronouns in everyday life

18 Oct 2023

Pronouns 101: How to use pronouns in everyday life

This article has been written for International Pronouns Day 2023. First celebrated in 2018, and marked annually on the third Wednesday of October, International Pronouns Day is a grassroots movement which seeks to make respecting and sharing personal pronouns commonplace.

 


 

Pronouns are the words we use in place of someone’s name. In the English language, these can be words like he, she, or they, as well as I, you, we, and our. So why are these words becoming such an important point of discussion globally?

For many cisgender (not-trans) people, someone using the wrong pronoun to refer to them might be taken as a novelty; “how funny that someone might accidentally call me she, haha, how unusual!”. For trans people, however, being referred to by pronouns that don’t match their gender identity — especially when it’s something that happens over and over and over — can lead to feeling disrespected, unwelcome, and worn down.

How come everybody’s talking about pronouns now?

Pronouns have existed since at least the 2nd century BC, so they’re definitely not a new phenomena. What we are seeing at the moment is people becoming more aware of using people’s correct pronouns. This is because more people are seeking to treat transgender and gender diverse people with respect, and to foster more inclusive environments in the workplace and among friend groups.

How do I figure out what someone’s pronouns are?

If you’re unsure about someone’s pronouns, you might choose to politely and discretely introduce yourself with your own name and pronouns. This lets the person you’re talking to know that you understand pronouns, and can make them more comfortable to share theirs. ​You might say:
“Hey, I’m Jessie, my pronouns are she/her. How are you?”
“My name is Dom, he/him pronouns – have we met?”
“I’m Autumn, and my pronouns are they/them. Nice to meet you!”
If you’re connected with the person online anywhere,​ you could also try checking their social media bio or email signature for any clues. This shows that you’ve done the research, and can make the trans person feel like you’re not missing a beat!

“But I don’t have pronouns!”

We hear this sometimes from well-meaning cisgender people. People might be sharing their pronouns in a group conversation, and when asked what their pronouns are, they’ll respond with “oh, I don’t have pronouns”. Most of the time, however, the person does have pronouns, and what they’re trying to say is that they’re not trans.

If you’re cisgender, someone asking your pronouns is not an insult! It’s merely someone checking in to make sure they’re referring to you using the most respect.

There are also some people who prefer no pronouns! These people often prefer using their name in place of pronouns. If you want to talk about someone like this, it might sound something like:

“This is Alex, who’s been a friend of mine since high school! Alex works in design, and makes some incredible artwork – you have to see this latest work, it’s beautiful!”

How can “they” be singular?

Occasionally, some people react negatively to the idea of a person’s pronouns being they/them purely on a grammatical level; the suggestion is that they or them are terms used to refer to groups of people, rather than one person. However, the singular they is nothing new! In fact, some of the literary greats used singular they, like Shakespeare and Jane Austen (no less than 75 times in Pride and Prejudice!)

You might have even used singular they when you’re talking about an unknown person:
“Oh no, someone dropped their phone! I hope they get it back!”

Languages grow and evolve over time, and as the singular they has fallen into more common use, its definition has been added to many dictionaries, from Merriam-Webster to the Oxford English. It’s also been added to writing style guides like Australian Manual of Style (AMOS) and APA Style, reflecting its broader acceptance across the community.

What does it mean when someone lists multiple pronouns?

Sometimes, people might share that they use multiple different kinds of pronouns, like he/they or they/she. When you see this, this means that the person in question is happy with either of the pronouns listed. Often, the pronoun listed first may be a preference, but either is fine. You might even choose to mix and match them between sentences!
This might sound like:
“Violet was talking about the songs she’s picking for her show this week. Honestly, their music taste is incredible!”

What are neopronouns?

Neopronouns (literally “new pronouns”) are a category of pronouns that go beyond he, she and they. Some examples include fae/faer, ze/zir, or ae/aer. “New” is, of course, relative; while pronouns can be dated back to the second century BC, neopronouns date back to the 12th century. While you might be unfamiliar with them, making the effort to learn and use the pronouns of people even when they feel unfamiliar is an excellent way to show respect.

How can I be an ally?

An easy way to show allyship for trans people is to add your own pronouns to your social media bio or your email signature. You might also get comfortable in sharing your pronouns when you introduce yourself to people. You could even find lapel pins with your pronouns to add to your work lanyard!

This is helpful because if trans people are the only people who share their pronouns, it “outs” them as trans. When people listing their pronouns in their bio or email signature is normalised, trans and gender diverse people feel more comfortable sharing their own.

Another way to show allyship can be to correct yourself when you get someone’s pronouns wrong in conversation without making a fuss. While we all make mistakes from time to time, not drawing attention to the mistake helps everyone feel more comfortable. It also means that, if the person you’re talking about is standing there taking part in the conversation, they feel less embarrassed.

Ultimately, using the right pronouns for people is just a sign of respect, like using somebody’s name. Trying your best to use the right ones will lead to happier, healthier people, and while it might take some getting used to, before long you’ll be a pronoun pro!

 


Want a more inclusive workplace? JOY Media offers workplace LGBTQIA+ diversity and inclusion training. Each training session can be adapted to fit your specific workplace, and we can cover everything from pronouns, to inclusive language, to unravelling the LGBTQIA+ acronym, to implementing policy.
Click here for more information.

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