Pronouns 101: What, why, and how to nail it

Pronouns 101: What, why, and how to nail it

Pronouns are the words we use to refer to a person when we aren’t using their name. ‘They’, ‘she’ and ‘he’ are all examples of common pronouns, and these little words can make a big difference in creating safe and respectful spaces for people. Understanding how people decide to use and identify with pronouns can be tricky to navigate, but this article should make the process a little easier.

Living a life where people get your pronouns right isn’t everyone’s experience, nor are pronouns necessarily reflective of how people look or present in the world. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is the easiest way to be a more respectful and generally excellent human.

What are pronouns?

‘She’ and ‘He’ are gendered pronouns. ‘She’ is typically used by a person who identifies as female, and ‘he’ by a person who identifies as male.  

‘They’ is an example of a gender neutral pronoun. ‘Xe’ and ‘Ey’ are also commonly used. Gender neutral pronouns are for people who don’t identify as male or female, and may identify as genderqueer or gender non-binary.

Can I get that in a sentence, please?

Here’s an example of a gendered pronoun in action:

“I met Sam on the weekend and she was an absolute ripper legend.”

And here’s an example of a gender neutral pronoun in action:

“I met Al on the weekend and they were an absolute ripper legend. I would love to see Al again, I really hope I run into them soon.”

If using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun feels awkward and goes against everything you think your school English teacher taught you, you’ll be relieved to know it’s actually totally legit grammatically. Merriam-Webster says ‘they’ has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s, with evidence it’s been used in a non-binary context since 1950 – maybe even earlier! Making others feel respected, validated, seen and included by using their correct pronouns is worth feeling a bit awks for anyway, right?

Why pronouns are important

When a trans, gender diverse or non-binary person comes out, there’s often a lot of consideration that has gone into what pronouns they identify with. Using their correct pronouns shows that you acknowledge and respect this, and it can help them feel recognised and safe in public spaces.

When someone refers to another person using the wrong pronouns, it is called ‘mis-gendering’. It can make the person feel disrespected and stressed. That’s not cool, so do your best with it and you’ll show people that you care.

3 tips for being a pronoun ally

1. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask them!
“Hey, what are your pronouns?” is a great place to start, especially when you meet someone new. Another way to nail it is to introduce yourself with your own pronouns, e.g. “Hey, I’m Law. I use She/Her pronouns. What about you?”

Bonus tip: Use your best judgement about whether it’s an appropriate time to ask the question. It’s not the most important thing in the world for you to know everyone’s pronouns, especially if someone isn’t comfortable sharing. Chill–just use their name until you feel like you can ask politely.

2. If you make a mistake, correct yourself and move on
There’s no need to flip out or make a big deal about getting pronouns wrong. The important thing is that you’re giving it a red hot go. Just say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I meant they, not he,” and continue on with your story. If your hear someone being mis-gendered, just politely correct them. Try, “Hey, for next time, Law uses she/her pronouns.”

3. Do your research
There are heaps of ways for you to learn more about the LGBTIQ+ community without relying on those you know who are part of it. Consider Minus18 your base camp (yes, pun!) for resources and stories of young people with lived experiences. Ygender and ACON’s language guide are great go-tos as well.

And you know what they say: practise makes us more practised, or something like that. Try your best—you’ve got this!