Pronouns are having a moment.
Merriam-Webster named the gender-neutral pronoun “they” as word of the year for 2019. And many celebrities — such as Sam Smith, Indya Moore and Amandla Stenberg — have recently come out as nonbinary, meaning they don’t identify within the gender binary of male and female, and shared that they use the singular “they” pronoun.
Of course, pronouns that fall outside the male-female binary — like they/them or ze/zir — aren’t new; people from the LGBTQ+ community, activists and allies have been working for years to raise awareness of the importance of using someone’s correct pronouns. And their work is paying off.
“Right now with changing culture, it’s something that’s being talked about, and it’s the perfect time for folks to be able to have this conversation with one another,” says Sean Johnson, program coordinator for the Transgender and Gender Non-Binary Care Program at UW Medicine.
If you’re someone who has never questioned the pronouns you use for yourself and didn’t understand until recently how varied pronouns can be, trying to figure out correct pronoun use can be a little overwhelming — and that’s OK.
Here’s what you need to know about how and when (and when not) to use pronouns in conversation, and what to do if you accidentally misgender someone.
Offer your pronouns with your name
What’s the simplest way to bring pronouns into a conversation? Mention your own pronouns when you introduce yourself to someone: “Hi, my name is so-and-so and my pronouns are they/them.”
Johnson calls this the “gold standard” because it’s easy and pretty much foolproof.
“Then it’s out there versus having to stop somewhere in the conversation,” he explains.
You can also add your pronouns to your email signature, your nametag or any other place where you already list your name and title. Then no one has to ask, and if someone wants to offer their pronouns in return, they’ll likely feel welcome to.
Treat pronouns like a name you forgot
For people you aren’t just meeting for the first time, it may seem like the time for mentioning pronouns has already passed. But that’s not necessarily true.
Think of it like forgetting the name of someone you’ve interacted with a few times already — maybe a new coworker or a neighbor.
In this situation, most of us will admit defeat and humbly ask for their name again. It’s more important to get it right and be a little embarrassed than be stubborn and possibly call them by the wrong name, right? The same goes for pronouns.
“We feel fine doing it with names, although we still feel awkward because it’s like, ‘I should know this already,’ but the person isn’t necessarily offended. We manage those potentially awkward scenarios regularly,” Johnson says.
So if you’re already familiar with someone but want to establish pronouns, try offering your own — “By the way, I don’t think I ever mentioned I use these pronouns” — or asking for theirs just like you’d ask for their name if you couldn’t remember it.
A little awkwardness is OK
Speaking of awkwardness, Johnson wants you to feel reassured that being a little awkward when talking about pronouns is a very human response to have.
It’s OK to feel a little outside of your comfort zone. In fact, that can be a good thing. True allyship — supporting and showing up for people from underrepresented communities — by necessity involves some discomfort.
Try not to let your apprehension of mild awkwardness turn into a full-blown fear. That’s not helpful to yourself or others.
Ultimately, keep in mind that someone else’s pronouns are about them, not you. So don’t make it about you.
“It doesn’t have to be that scary. What the TGNB health program advises is just to use the pronouns someone says. If they use a pronoun you’ve never seen before, just use it, no need to get alarmed,” Johnson says.
Use “they” until you know
One idea Johnson likes is simply to use “they” pronouns for everyone until you know what someone’s correct pronouns are.
This not only helps you get comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns, but also keeps you from accidentally misgendering someone. It’s a win-win.
A note about gender-neutral pronouns
Of course, you might feel awkward using “they” as a singular pronoun. Many of us were taught that it can only be plural.
In fact, many dictionaries and style guides have now included “they” as a singular pronoun.
It’s worth noting that you’ve probably used “they” in a similar context without even realizing it, Johnson says.
“A good example of how we do this regularly is when someone cuts us off driving, we always say, ‘They cut me off.’ We have no idea what person or people are in that car. We use singular ‘they’ all the time; we just don’t know we do it,” he says.
So the next time you get tripped up by the singular “they,” remind yourself that you’ve probably already used it before and there’s no real reason it should be hard.
Don’t press someone for their pronouns
While it’s a good idea to always offer your pronouns up front, it’s also important to recognize that some people might not offers theirs in return.
“If they don’t want to give that info, it could be a safety issue, or if someone is working that out, it could be triggering for them to identify in that moment,” Johnson says.
If someone doesn’t willingly offer their own pronouns, don’t keep pressuring them about it. Understand that they may be dealing with something that prevents them from feeling comfortable sharing. Instead, move on and refer to them as “they” if their name comes up in conversation with someone else.
What to do if you mess up
Time to face the facts: At some point, you’re probably going to mess up someone’s pronouns, whether that means accidentally misgendering someone or using the wrong pronouns before you realize what the right ones are.
“As a trans person that has been in trans communities and doing activism for quite some time, even I sometimes will mess up,” Johnson says. “It will happen, so try not to freak out about it.”
If you learn you’ve misgendered someone or if someone calls you out directly, the best thing to do is thank them for correcting you and move on while making a mental note not to mess up next time.
You might feel inclined to apologize, but Johnson says that isn’t necessary and can feel like you’re trying to push the other person to let you off the hook.
“If you say, ‘I’m sorry I messed up,’ you’re putting it on the other person to support you in trying to work all this out,” he explains.
So stick with a simple “Oops, my bad, thanks for letting me know,” and drop it.
Why using correct pronouns is important
At the most basic level, correct pronoun use is about recognizing part of someone’s identity. It may seem simple, but it can be very meaningful.
“It’s a way that we orient ourselves to others and how we establish connections. Conveying to one another that you see me, you see who I am,” Johnson explains.
For people who are transgender, nonbinary or gender non-conforming, openly using pronouns can suggest that you’re someone who won’t judge or bully them.
“You’re signaling to me you have an understanding that someone might not have traditional ideas about pronouns, and a basic understanding of what trans or nonbinary is. It can also help in creating a safe space,” Johnson says.
When you think about it, that’s a pretty powerful thing to do just by offering your pronouns. It’s a small act of kindness that can go a long way — and help you make stronger connections with the people around you.