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Why pronouns are important, how to get them right, and what to do if you slip up

Pronoun etiquette will help us understand how to not only respect others' pronouns but also create a safe environment for free gender expression. 

Why pronouns are important, how to get them right, and what to do if you slip up
Image Source: Getty Images/nadia_bormotova

Demi Lovato has announced that they identify as non-binary and will henceforth be using the pronouns they/them. Last year, Elliot Page came out as transgender and said that he prefers he/they pronouns. This, among many other public figures coming out, has allowed for important conversations about pronouns and the correct usage of the same to gain steam. More people are willing to educate themselves about the spectrum of gender and start using more inclusive language in their day-to-day life. Pronoun etiquette will help us understand how to not only respect others' pronouns but also create a safe environment for free gender expression. 


Assuming someone's gender can be harmful, so it's always important to ask what pronouns people use for themselves. There are the gendered pronouns, she/her and he/him. When people identify with the sex assigned at birth, they are said to be cisgender. Sometimes people do not identify with the sex assigned as birth. Sometimes they may identify with the gendered binary, neither, or both. There are people who are intersex as well. The English language lacks a gender-neutral pronoun, which is why people who do not identify with the binary genders choose to go by the pronouns they/them. Although it may seem like a plural pronoun, it has been used in the singular form for longer than some may believe. According to CNN, "they" has been used in the singular form for over 600 years. And in 2019, Merriam-Webster updated for "they" to include the nonbinary pronoun among its definitions.


Using a person's pronouns correctly is very important. Many times, we tend to assume a person's pronouns from their physical appearance and their name. This is falling into the performative nature of gender and the harmful stereotypes that come with it. Many nonbinary and trans people also use gendered pronouns, so it is important to remember that a person's pronoun preference does not inform their gender identity. It is best to ensure you get people's pronouns right so as to not cause anyone psychological distress. If you are not sure whether a specific context makes it safe to downright asking people their pronouns, you can offer your own pronouns. This will let them know that it is a safe space to share their own instead of being ambushed into revealing theirs if they are not yet comfortable doing so. At the very least, it gives them an opportunity to inform you what pronouns they are comfortable with being used for them in that space. 



While trying to get pronouns right, there will be times when you may slip up and make a mistake. The best thing to do would be to apologize, move on, and get it right the next time. You may feel like you are a bad person who has disrespected them. Instead of causing a scene and putting the other person on the spot, you could apologize to them in private later as well. But anyone can tell the difference between a mistake from disrespect. If a person has clarified their pronouns explicitly and you continue to use the wrong ones, misgendering them, you are essentially emotionally and psychologically harassing them. By deliberately using the wrong pronouns, you are erasing the person's identity and telling them they do not matter. 



Just as language evolves, in addition to the traditional pronouns, there are new pronouns that have come into existence. Aptly known as neo pronouns, these gender-neutral pronouns include, fae/faer/faers, xe/xem/xyers, ze/hir/hirs, and ve/ver/vis pronouns, according to Insider. There are people who are gender-fluid as well and their pronouns may change according to their fluid gender expression. Being mindful will help make your language more inclusive. Instead of using gendered and binary expressions, it would be better to switch to gender-neutral language. For example, instead of using, "he/she", just say "they." Instead of "ladies and gentlemen" or "boys and girls", you can address people using "people," "folks," or "friends." Normalize sharing pronouns to make social and professional spaces more inclusive. 


"It might be something that people are now becoming more aware of in more mainstream, broader spaces, but it's not something that's a new conversation for trans people or even for some people in the LGBT community sometimes," Shige Sakurai, the founder of International Pronouns Day and the associate director of the LGBT Equity Center at the University of Maryland, College Park told CNN. To familiarize yourself with and get a better understanding of how to use pronouns, especially neo pronouns correctly, you can use this site, Practice With Pronouns.


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