Gender Pronoun Guide
The concept of gender is evolving, and therefore so are gender identities. Some people use nontraditional pronouns. Someone’s name and pronouns may change after you have already been introduced to the person. Some people use more than one set of pronouns for themselves. This guide can be used as a starting point to using pronouns respectfully. The guide provides some suggestions and information for in the general community as well as inside the classroom.
Gender binary: a gender classification in which all people are categorized as either male or female.
|Gender binary pronouns||
Gender neutral: common to both male and female genders; a word or expression that cannot be taken to refer to one gender only.
|Gender neutral pronouns||
they/them/their (used as singular)
ze/hir/hirs or zirs (pronounced: zhee/here/heres or zheres)
xe/xem/xyr (pronounced: zhee/zhem/zhere)
Frequently asked questions
Why are pronouns important?
No matter your gender identity, gender can be very important to someone’s sense of self. To incorrectly gender someone can cause the person to feel disrespected, alienated, or dysphoric (or a combination of the three). It is very important to know that you cannot visually tell if someone’s gender. This means that you can also not visually tell if someone is transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, gender-variant, and so on.
How do I know which pronouns to use?
Asking for pronouns can depend in the setting.
|When speaking to a student, classmate, co-worker, or other community member to whom you introduce yourself||It is best to ask for their pronouns.||
"What pronouns do you use?"
"What pronouns should I use for you in this space?"*
"My name is Dan, and my pronouns are he and him. What about you?"
|If you aren't sure about someone's name or pronouns but you have already asked or met the person||It is okay to ask for their pronouns again, or later.|
|For the classroom, club/organization or any other group that meets regularly||
Have everyone introduce themselves and make a point to have them say their preferred name and pronouns for the space.*
Ask everyone to email or write down their preferred names and pronouns.
*Asking what pronouns to use in a specific space makes room for people to express themselves in a variety of ways. People may not be out everywhere and don’t want to be.
Do names and pronouns change?
Yes. Knowing your gender identity is not always an easy process. Some people may change their pronouns and names based on their personal gender fluidity, and some people may just need to “try something out”, while others may use different pronouns in different settings. Making space for this is important to be respectful. People may change their pronouns without changing their name, appearance, or gender identity. Names may change without changing pronouns, appearance, or gender identity. It is not possible to know without asking.
What do I do when someone uses pronouns that I don't know?
Many people will appreciate if you ask for clarification respectfully. For example, “I’m sorry, did you say “ze/hir” pronouns? How do I use those?”
Not everyone likes to be asked to clarify, and sometimes asking for clarification can draw too much attention. If you are in a large group, ask the person in private.
What if I make a mistake?
The best thing to do if you use the wrong pronoun for someone is to say something right away, like: "Sorry, I meant (insert pronoun)." If you realize that you made a mistake after the fact, apologize in private and move on.
When should I correct others' mistakes?
Some people may not want attention drawn to them. Some people may not want someone else standing up for them. Others may appreciate you standing up for them. You can ask if the person would want you to correct others. One way to ask might be: “I heard our professor use the wrong pronoun for you in class. Should I correct her or others in the future?”
If the wrong pronoun is used for a person who isn’t present, try a brief correction. Remember, you may not know the correct pronoun or want to out the person. For example: “I think Skylar uses ‘they/them’ pronouns. Am I wrong?"
Other things to consider
While it is important to take an active role, whether by educating yourself, checking to see if a person’s name or pronouns have changed, or correcting yourself and others who make mistakes, it is also important to do this at the comfort level of the person with whom you are interacting. Do not ask invasive questions about a person’s body, their potential former names, their gender, why or how they know they are a certain gender, their sexual practice unless the person invites you to ask.
It can be tough to remember pronouns at first. The best solution is to practice. Correct pronoun use is an easy step toward showing respect for people of every gender. You might consciously work to use a person's name rather than pronouns, as you adjust.
A guide to how gender-neutral language is developing around the world is a December 15, 2019 Washington Post article written by Miriam Berger in which she explores gender neutral language around the world.