What Are Gender Pronouns? Helpful Guide and Examples

Getting another person’s pronoun right is a sign of respect and acknowledgement. Read on to learn how to use gender pronouns.

Except if you’ve just arrived on earth from another planet, you’ve probably noticed terms such as “gender identity,” “gender inclusivity,” and “LGBTQ rights” in the media over the last few years. The biases and prejudices of society are demonstrated through actions as noticeable as physical violence to something as seemingly inconsequential as a pronoun. However, language is very important. By changing the way we talk about and address others, we can challenge long-held preconceptions and biases and ultimately change the way people think.

Whether you’re in the workplace or meeting new people at a friend’s party, you must be aware that not everyone identifies as male or female. This means that you can’t automatically assume that their pronouns are she/her/hers if you’re chatting to a woman. Instead, they may prefer other pronouns which you can identify by simply asking.

So if you’re feeling a bit dazed and confused, read on. I provide a short but concise overview of pronouns and how you can find out what a person’s preferred pronouns are.

What Are Pronouns?

Let me recap on what a pronoun is before I delve into the complex subject of gender pronouns. Pronouns are words that replace nouns, including people, places, things, or ideas. Instead of constantly having to repeat the same noun in a sentence, we use pronouns. Doing so prevents the construction of long and unwieldy sentences that are difficult to read. For example, instead of the sentence, “Susan has to pack Susan’s suitcase quickly so that Susan can catch Susan’s flight on time,” you would rather say or write, “Susan has to pack her suitcase quickly so that she can catch her flight on time.”

Personal Gender Pronouns

In the example sentence where Susan is packing her suitcases, I used the personal pronouns she and her to refer to Susan. I assumed that Susan identifies as female based on her name. In English, pronouns have traditionally been classified as either masculine, i.e., he/his/himself, or feminine, i.e., she/her/herself. Since language is directly connected to a society’s culture and view of the world, this classification was in line with the traditional idea that there are only two genders, namely male and female.

Since males were also, in the past, viewed as superior to females, the pronoun he was used as a generic pronoun in all instances where the gender of a noun was unclear. It was, for instance, the accepted norm to construct a sentence such as “When a person enters a room, he must always introduce himself.” In the absence of a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, he and himself are used in this sentence to refer to the person.

When the women’s liberation movement started to make inroads, especially during the second wave, ingrained everyday biases such as using the masculine pronoun in gender-neutral contexts came under fire. Since then, the use of they as the preferred gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun has gained traction. If we use the same example sentence, it looks like this: “When a person enters a room, they must always introduce themselves.”

The Singular They

If you’re a member of the grammar police, your one eye may start to twitch at the thought of using a plural pronoun for a singular noun. However, if you think about it, this is not the first instance in the English language that we’re using the same pronoun to describe both singular and plural nouns. For instance, the plural you in English also developed over time to eventually include a singular you, with the effect that we use you today to describe either one or many people. And nobody is raising an eyelid about this anymore. The simple fact is that language is a living and ever-changing thing. So, don’t get too stuck on the grammar rules of today. They may not be the rules of tomorrow.

For now, the use of the singular they have become the norm in academic writing and also other forms of writing, such as journalism. In addition, several key bodies, such as the American Psychological Association, have officially recognized the use of the singular they, whether in formal or informal writing.

Gender-Inclusive Pronouns

What are gender pronouns?
This means that the singular they can be used in instances where the gender of the antecedent — the noun the pronoun refers to — is unknown

Discrimination against women is not the only cultural bias that has been reflected in our everyday language. The gender binary in English excludes people who have a more fluid sense of gender, such as those who identify as nonbinary or transgender. This exclusion is demonstrated in that pronouns are neatly classified as either masculine or feminine. However, not everyone identifies as male or female.

Fortunately, the rights of the LGBTQ community are increasingly being recognized in progressive societies these days. This development has influenced discussions regarding gendered language and the use of the correct pronouns for people who are gender non-conforming. Since he and she are not sufficient when referring to, for instance, nonbinary or genderqueer people, the singular gender-neutral pronoun they can also be used in these instances.

This means that the singular they can be used in instances where the gender of the antecedent — the noun the pronoun refers to — is unknown, or to refer to a person whose gender expression does not include he or she. Since the word they is already ingrained in the English language, it is currently the most common gender-neutral pronoun.

However, several other third-person singular pronouns are in use. Here are a few examples:

Example: They

Them

Their

Theirs

Themself

Ve

Ver

Vis

Vers

Verself

Xe

Xem

Xyr

Xyrs

Xemself

Ze/Zie

Hir

Hir

Hirs

Hirself

Ze/Zie

Zim

Zir

Zis

Zieself

Per

Per

Pers

Pers

Perself

E/Ey

Em

Eir

Eirs

Eirself

How To Avoid Using the Wrong Pronouns

Seeing that there’s such a wide variety of gender-inclusive pronouns in use, how are you supposed to know a person’s preferred pronouns? It can be tricky to figure out what a person’s gender identity is. To avoid hurtful assumptions and misgendering, however, you want to gauge the correct pronouns for people you come in contact with. Suppose you are cisgender and identify as either he or she. In that case, you may not understand how hurtful and disrespectful it can be to non-binary people when others assume their identity.

One of the safest ways to find out a person’s pronouns is by sharing your own pronouns when you introduce yourself, even if you identify as a cisgender person. You can, for instance, say: “Hi, my name is Clara, and my pronouns are she/her/hers.” Sharing your own pronouns provides the other person with an opportunity to share theirs. In the event that the other party doesn’t reciprocate by also sharing their pronouns, you can just politely ask them what pronouns they use.

You can also normalize the sharing of gender pronouns by sharing your own pronouns in your email signature and on your social media profiles and business cards. However, suppose you’re not sure of a person’s gender identity or prefer not to disclose it. In that case, it’s advisable to default to the singular they or avoid sentence constructions that include pronouns and instead use their name.

Even if you have the best intentions, you may get somebody’s pronouns wrong. When this happens, it’s best to apologize and find out their correct pronouns. Likewise, when you hear someone else using the wrong pronouns, you can help them out by politely correcting them and saving the person who is being misgendered some embarrassment.

If you are using pronouns in your next piece of writing, check out our list of 100 pronouns to use for writers.

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