Pronouns and Why They Matter

We understand that faculty, staff, students and all members of our W&L Campus Community want to provide a warm, welcoming, and inclusive environment for one another. Part of what creates this climate is understanding appropriate and affirming ways to speak to and about others. One of the most common ways in which people are unintentionally excluded is by being incorrectly gendered. In English, we often refer to someone not by their name, but by pronouns such as "he" and "she". Because these pronouns have gender implied, they can often result in inaccurate portrayals of who people are. In order to support those interested in what pronouns are and why they matter, the below contains Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about pronouns, as well as links to external resources that can help provide context and information.

Why Should I Care About Pronouns?

Using pronouns to talk about somebody is the same as using a person's name. While you may not give much thought to your name, many people feel a strong sense of pride in their name. Some people are more comfortable with their first name instead of their middle name (or vice versa), others, a derivation of their name or a nickname. How somebody asks for you to refer to them is how people make space for themselves. Similarly, the pronouns with which someone identifies are how they feel valued and seen. We have been conditioned to assume gender based on what people look like, and that can result in harmful messages. Taking the time to learn and use someone's pronouns is a small gesture that makes a big difference!

Helpful Resource: Why Pronouns Matter for Trans People

Helpful Resource: Pronouns Matter - MyPronouns.org

You Mean There Are Other Pronouns Besides "He" and "She"?

YES! Multitudes! Most people are familiar with "He/Him/His" to refer to a man or boy, and "She/Her/Hers" to refer to a woman or girl, but there are so many other pronouns with which people identify! These pronouns have a variety of origins; some are revived from Old English, others have been created by literary works, and still others have been borrowed from other languages and cultures. One that people often struggle with is the singular 'They'. We are taught throughout schooling that 'They' can only be used to refer to a group of people, but that is simply not true! An easy way to understand how the singular 'They' is used is to think about a lost item. If you find an umbrella in a crowded room, someone will often stand up and ask "Did anyone lose their umbrella?".

Here we have a chart on the different forms and functions that pronouns take in the English language, and some examples of pronouns besides "he," "she," and "they."

Subjective Objective Possessive Adjective Possessive Reflexive
I Me My Mine Myself
He Him His His Himself
She Her Her Hers Herself
They Them Their Theirs Themself / Themselves / Theirself / Theirselves
Ze / Xe ("Zee") Zem / Xem ("Zim") Zir / Zyr / Xir / Xyr ("Zeer") Zirs / Zyrs / Xirs / Xyrs ("Zeers") Zemself / Xemself ("Zim-self")
Fae Faem Faer Faers / Faem Faerself / Faemself
___ is speaking. I listened to _____. That was _____ idea. That book is _____. (Subjective) went to the store all by _____.

Helpful Resource: Merriam Webster Announces Singular "They" as 2019 Word of the Year

Helpful Resource: Merriam-Webster Dictionary - Singular 'They'

Helpful Resource: It's OK To Use "They" To Describe One Person: Here's Why

Helpful Resource: What Are Pronouns With Which People Identify?

Is It OK to Ask Peoples' Pronouns?

YES! YES! YES! In fact, this is a practice that we should all become more comfortable with. Asking for someone's pronouns shows that you are being thoughtful about their lived experience. Many people have never thought about their pronouns, and may not know how to respond when asked; that's OK! This is an opportunity to talk about what pronouns are, why they are important, and why it is important to ask for them! The best way to ask for someone's pronouns is to simply say something like "What pronouns do you use?" or "What are your pronouns?". If you are unsure of someone's pronouns, it is typically OK to use 'They/Them/Theirs'. An even safer way to refer to someone if you don't know their pronouns is by using their name! For example, "As Chris said...", "When I was talking to Heidi...", or "Did you know Alex's favorite band is...?"

Helpful Resource: Using and Asking for Pronouns

What If I Misgender Someone?

Mistakes are bound to happen. We have been taught our whole lives to believe there are only two genders, and that we can tell what someone's gender is based on looking at them. It is OK to feel embarrassed, confused, or apologetic for misgendering someone, but the important thing is to acknowledge your mistake and move on. You don't need to feel like you owe the person a tearful explanation of why you made the mistake; rather, a simple "I'm sorry, they..." in the moment will usually suffice. If you realize that you have been misgendering someone for a while, reaching out to them to acknowledge your mistake and apologizing is a great first step. Saying "I wanted to apologize for referring to you by the wrong pronouns. I know you use "she/her" pronouns and I will make sure to not make that mistake again." shows that you understand that you've made a mistake AND that you will actively take steps to correct it. It is important to note that people may respond different ways when they are misgendered. Some people will move on quickly, others may get upset. Whatever the response, being sincere in interacting with that person will help maintain the relationship.

Helpful Resource: What To Do (and Not Do) If You Misgender Someone

Should I Share My Pronouns Even If I'm Not Trans/Non-Binary?

Absolutely! You might have even reached this page from someone's email signature that included their pronouns, even though they might not be trans/non-binary, or even LGBTQIA+! Sharing your pronouns is a great way to challenge the norm that you can assume someone's pronouns, and to create space for someone else to share their pronouns, especially for trans, queer, and/or non-binary people. There are a variety of ways to do this; you can add pronouns to your email signature, put them on your name tag or door, add them to your profile on social media, and share them out loud when introducing yourself. If you are leading a group discussion, you can also ask that when each person introduces themself, they share their pronouns (as they are comfortable - we don't want to force anyone to out themselves!) We understand that sharing pronouns can be awkward at first, but want to assure you that, once you have done it a few times, it just becomes a part of how you introduce yourself!

What Other Resources Should I Know About?

Academic Style Guides on the Singular Pronoun 'They' (Indiana University Bloomington, Gender Studies)

Glossary of LGBTQ+ Terms (University of California at Davis LGBTQIA Resource Center)

Gender Pronouns (Trans Student Educational Resources)

Neopronouns Explained (UNCG Office of Intercultural Engagement)

NOTE: We have bolded all of the times and all of the ways in which we used the singular 'They' on this page in an effort to show how commonplace our usage actually is. We hope this can serve as a tool to help you show others how often we use the singular 'They'.

This page was adapted from The Office of Intercultural Engagement at UNC Greensboro. Used with permission.