Personal pronouns are the parts of speech we use when we talk about someone in third person. Like in the sentence below:
She‘s going camping with John, even though he’s bringing his brother with him.
Personal pronouns aren’t a thing most people think much about, because they usually present no problems.
But for a lot of gender-nonconforming people, we think about them a lot, because people get them wrong a lot. Pronouns are one of the most common ways misgendering happens.
Misgendering is when a person makes reference to someone as though they’re a different gender than they really are. It’s like someone calling your mom “mister,” or your brother “ma’am.” It happens when someone who isn’t a she gets called “she,” or when someone who isn’t a he gets called a “he.” It can happen in many different ways. But however it happens, it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and when it happens constantly, it’s dehumanizing.
Some people (myself included) get misgendered even more frequently than they get gendered correctly. This can cause extreme distress. The term for this sort of distress is social dysphoria.
For a lot of nonbinary people—people who are not strictly a man or strictly a woman—being misgendered and experiencing social dysphoria is often the price we pay for spending time around people.
We need to expand our language
For a long time, the English language has not allowed for nonbinary folks to go about our lives without being misgendered.
Women are spoken of with she/her pronouns. Men are spoken of with he/him pronouns.
So how do people speak of someone like me? I’m agender (a person who has no gender), and have no identification with either male or female genders. For me, she and he are both incorrect pronouns.*
But those are the only two sets of singular personal pronouns most people are comfortable using. So they usually just pick one of those, even though they’re both untruthful.
Our language hasn’t had common words for people like me. The absence of language to describe us has made it seem to many people as though we’re not real, or taboo, or offensive. But we exist and we matter, whether or not commonly-accepted vocabulary allows us to be spoken of.
So what do we do to fix that?
For one thing, we need to expand our language.
In order to correctly reference people who are neither male nor female, we need pronouns that don’t incorrectly describe us. We need to be able to reference people accurately and honestly. We need gender-neutral pronouns.
Language is open to expansion
I’m not a linguist. But I do recognize that language is the cultural framework we use to understand and describe whatever we can think of. We don’t just use it passively; we also create it by adding to it. To add to it, we start using new words that have the meanings we need. The more people find those words meaningful, the more those words spread and expand human understanding of that new concept.
There’s an entire emerging lexicon of neopronouns (a word that literally means “new pronouns”). Maybe in a future post I’ll write about them. For this post I’m focusing on a set of pronouns that functions as a sort of bridge to neopronouns: the singular they/them.
These pronouns are broad and inclusive. We can use them to make reference to a person without imposing any gender on them. Here are some ways they’re accurate to use:
- You can use them for me, or any other person who tells you those are their pronouns.
- You can use them when you’re unsure what someone’s gender is.
- You can use them when the person you’re referencing could be any gender—for example, instead of saying “he or she,” you could just say “they.”
- They include all genders, so you can use them in reference to men and women, too, without misgendering.
Unlike she/her or he/him pronouns, they/them pronouns are free of gender, so they can be used for any person. This is an important addition to our language. Not just for validating nonbinary folks, but also for situations in which calling out someone’s gender is unhelpful.
Here’s an example of how a friend of mine might use singular they pronouns in reference to me:
Adrien’s coming over here when they’ve finished ordering their drink, so I saved them a seat.
Yes, “they” in the past has been used more exclusively as a plural pronoun, referencing more than one person. But language evolves with the expansion of our thoughts.
Whether or not you’re familiar with singular they pronouns, they are already in use and recognized in dictionaries and grammatical style manuals, and have been for several years. (I’ve used Chicago Manual of Style in my editing since 2011, and they’ve included the singular “they” as a grammatically correct personal pronoun in formal writing for a good while now.)
If these pronouns sound strange to you, it’s not because they’re wrong. It’s just a matter of getting used to them.
How to use they/them pronouns
It might take some getting used to when you start using the singular they/them pronouns, but you’ll pick it up faster than you think. Just remember, you’re expanding your language, so it makes sense that it would take a little practice for it to feel natural.
Here’s a quick chart to reference as you practice.
Don’t beat yourself up if you need practice. You’re working against centuries of cultural conditioning. Willingness to understand is what matters most, not getting it perfect.
As you encounter gender-diverse people and practice using their correct pronouns, keep these things in mind:
If you’re not sure if someone you meet uses she, he, or they pronouns, then just ask them what their pronouns are.
If you learn that someone uses they/them pronouns, then use those pronouns in reference to them.
Don’t just do it when they’re in earshot, either: make an effort to use their correct pronouns even when they’re not present.
It’s especially important to use a person’s correct pronouns when you’re introducing them to someone.
If you slip up, don’t make a big deal of it. Think of it like getting someone’s name wrong. It’s a little embarrassing that you forgot what their name was, but the best thing to do is correct yourself and move on.
Take responsibility for your perspective. It’s not very considerate to put the responsibility back on the person who has told you their pronouns by saying something like “I’m going to forget that, so just remind me when I do.” You devalue what someone has shared with you when your first response is that you don’t expect to even remember it.
Using gender-neutral pronouns makes a difference.
Gender-neutral pronouns are about more than just helping nonbinary folks experience less social dysphoria (though that’s a great reason to use them). They’re also about allowing what’s true to be perceived, instead of ignored and erased.
It’s true that that there are people with genders outside of just male or female. More people need to perceive this truth, and language is a huge way to encourage this to happen.
So let’s expand what humans can get their heads around.
It’s easy: just start by using my pronouns.
*Note: not all agender or nonbinary people use they/them pronouns. Some use he/him. Some use she/her. Some use neopronouns—which is a subject for another post.