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Someone I know uses pronouns I don’t understand. What now? A beginner’s guide to pronouns

By Karlee Van De Venter, Tri-City Herald
Published: June 24, 2024, 6:00am

Pride Month represents many things. It acknowledges the history of suffering in the LGBTQ+ community and the strides made in recent decades.

It also reminds us of the many queer people who died just for being who they are, and the historical icons who have been so influential in creating a better, safer future for the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s an invitation to be unapologetically yourself, to embrace who you are even if no one around you does. It’s all this and more, of layered importance to all queer people.

Another layer, though, is education. As it was necessary in previous generations, educating the masses on the queer experience still carries massive importance today.

If you struggle when someone in your life changes their preferred pronouns, or if you have a new coworker with multiple pronouns and aren’t sure how to approach interactions, or just have general questions, here’s what you need to know about navigating pronoun usage in the modern day.

How pronouns represent gender identity

The first thing one needs to understand about pronouns is that everyone has them. You can’t really opt out of pronouns, as they’re an essential part of language, unless you want to be solely referred to by your name.

Throughout history, third-person pronoun options have extended beyond he/him/his and she/her/hers. The singular use of they/them/their pronouns has been prevalent in the English language for a long time. Many people don’t even realize the singular use of they/them is recurrent in their vocabulary.

For example, if you find a jacket in a restaurant booth, you might turn it in to the hostess saying “Someone left their jacket.” Or when you need a phone charger while with a group of people, you might ask “Did anyone bring their charger?”

If you listen for it throughout a standard day, or few days, you’re likely to hear other uses of the singular “they.” People use it as a default when they don’t know the gender of a person and are trying to speak in generic terms. It can be applied the same way for a specific individual.

The singular “they” is faster than “he or she,” as well as more inclusive. When you don’t know what someone’s gender identity is, they/them/their is generally accurate.

In fiction and art, in historical accounts and in ancient texts, other gender neutral pronoun options have been used. During the golden age of print news, many different options were used as the norm at different publications. Going back as far as the 1800s, print publications have used, with varying popularity:

  • e/em/es
  • zi(e)/zir/zirs
  • sie/hir/hirs
  • xe/xem/xir
  • phe/hem/hes
  • e/er/ers

Variations of these usages occurred, as well as some completely different options.

They all offered options to refer to people without implying their gender identity. It was utilized when someone’s gender was unclear, so as to not assume, when writers wanted to reveal as few personal details as possible, and in other general scenarios.

How to use new pronouns correctly

So, what happens when someone in your life uses pronouns you’re not used to?

Whether this is a new person in your life, or someone you’ve been around for a long time introducing new preferred pronouns, it’s important to take this information seriously. Someone sharing their preferences with you means the distinction is important to them, and that they trust you to understand that.

This goes back to the acceptance part of Pride Month (and being an ally in general). By respecting someone’s pronouns and gender identity, you contribute to greater acceptance of queer people, as explained by the National Education Association.

PFLAG is the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy, education and support organization, with chapters across the country.

The current chair of the Benton and Franklin counties’ chapter of PFLAG, Patti Jones, told the Tri-City Herald respecting people’s pronouns helps LGBTQ+ folks be seen, which is especially important for a community that has often been brushed under the rug. Studies have shown that affirming identities and honoring pronouns improves the quality of life of LGBTQ+ people, leading to lower suicide rates and depression rates.

This is especially important among youth, as LGBTQ+ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts, according to the Trevor Project, a non-profit which focuses on suicide prevention efforts among the LGBTQ+ community.

When you’re trusted with this information, adjust your thinking in regard to that person. When you think about them, correct your thoughts to use their updated pronouns. This helps build the habit.

Like any new habit, updating your use of pronouns will take some time to get used to. You might slip up a few times and accidentally use the wrong pronouns, especially in the beginning. This is OK, it’s not the end of the world. Simply catch yourself, quickly correct it and move on. This is recommended by human rights organization GLSEN and several other reputable organizations. Don’t dwell on it or chastise yourself, just offer an immediate correction.

“When you catch it, correct yourself and move on,” Jones said. “Just correct yourself and try harder next time.”

For example, if you have a coworker who previously used she/her/hers pronouns, but updated the workspace that they’re using they/them/theirs pronouns, you might accidentally refer to them as “she” a few times. If you accidentally said “She’s here today,” the best follow-up would be “Sorry, they are here today.”

If you don’t catch yourself and are corrected by someone else, the same response is best. Offer a quick apology and correction, then move on.

It’s OK if it takes time, just stick with it. The longer you use certain pronouns for a specific person, the easier it’ll become. Before long, the slip-ups will become less and less likely.

“Just remember you respect the person and want to honor them,” Jones said. “It’s new, and it takes effort.”

How to use dual pronouns

Some people prefer multiple sets of pronouns. The usage of they/them/theirs is becoming increasingly popular, and many people are using two or more sets of pronouns. Shorthands for this include “she/they” and “he/they,” for example.

This means they don’t feel fully represented by either set of pronouns alone. In general, the best way to utilize this preference is to alternate uses, switching between sets. That said, it never hurts to ask clarifying questions about someone’s pronouns. Ask the people in your life what makes them feel most represented, and do your best to apply that.

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“I have yet to meet anyone who was insulted by someone asking about their pronouns,” Jones said.

Some people feel represented by all pronouns, and don’t have a preference how they’re referred to.

These are all valid expressions of gender identity that can be honored by adjusted thinking among peers.

PFLAG in Benton and Franklin counties offers literature and other educational materials, including presentations, for anyone who would like more information.

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