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Commentary: Understanding how to use pronouns is an important skill for everyone

Photo by Claire Keener

The beginning of a new semester introduces a lot of new information to students and faculty alike. A recurring discussion that often comes up has to do with pronouns; though new to some, it has become more common to introduce oneself with their pronouns. 

Transgender people have been expected to lead the conversations and education on pronouns, but it really is up to everyone to understand how to use pronouns properly to avoid situations of misgendering. 

Some people mistakenly assume that pronouns only apply to trans people, but this isn’t the case. Cisgender people use pronouns everyday; any time you refer to someone saying “he” or “she”, you are using pronouns for them, and whether they are related to one’s assigned sex at birth or not isn’t terribly important. The understanding and proper use of pronouns can lead to safer educational environments and better experiences for everyone involved. 

The first thing one needs to understand is that pronouns do not always equal gender. Assumptions are often made based upon someone’s appearance; these assumptions are often about their pronouns and their gender, but these can be two different things entirely. Just because someone appears more masculine or feminine doesn’t determine their gender or their pronouns. 

Name tags with pronouns written on them.
[Photo of pronouns written on name tags on a wall]
Photo by Claire Keener | The Arbiter

Making an assumption about pronouns and gender can be very harmful. Misgendering people, especially trans people, can have negative effects on their overall mental health. Using someone’s pronouns correctly is a form of respect, so even if one doesn’t understand, putting in the effort to learn is incredibly important, and there are many resources for this. 

If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, don’t make an assumption. Instead, use gender-neutral pronouns like they/them until you’re corrected or told what their pronouns are.

Some may not understand how to use they/them pronouns at all, and others believe that these pronouns aren’t grammatically correct. The words “they” and “them” are often viewed as plural and only plural. This is also not correct. The pronouns they, them, theirs and themself can all be used to describe an individual person, either as their personal pronouns or if their pronouns are unknown.

In fact, the 2019 Merriam-Webster Word of the Year was ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. 

After an increasing amount of studies conducted and a 313% increase in dictionary searches for the word, the Merriam-Webster dictionary expanded the definition of ‘they’ to include “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.” 

While not everyone who uses they/them pronouns identifies as nonbinary, and not all nonbinary people use they/them pronouns, it’s important to understand that even our dictionaries agree that these pronouns can be used for a singular person. 

According to Purdue University, other sources agree. OWL Purdue, the Associated Press, the American Psychological Association and the Chicago Manual of Style have all officially stated that the singular, gender-neutral use of they/them pronouns is correct. 

Using they/them pronouns for someone is just as easy as any other pronouns. For example, “They went out shopping. Their shoes are cool. I should ask them where they got their shirt.”

Some people may use multiple pronouns, such as she/they or he/they. Further, some individuals may use any or all pronouns. If the person is comfortable, one can ask if they prefer a particular pronoun over another. But typically, those who use multiple pronouns prefer their pronouns to be used interchangeably. 

For example, if someone uses he and they pronouns, they may want both sets of pronouns used. This can look like this: “He went to the store to buy fruit. They will be back shortly.” 

While the use of other gender-neutral pronouns, like xe/xem and e/em, have not been as widely accepted, these pronouns are also important to understand and respect. The University of Wisconsin’s LGBT+ Resource Center offers a simple how-to guide for many more gender-neutral pronouns.

Though it may be a new concept to some, it’s important to learn how to properly use people’s pronouns, even if one doesn’t understand it entirely. While misgendering can lead to harmful situations, properly using pronouns can create safe, positive spaces instead.

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