They/Them Pronouns: What They Mean and When to Use Them

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The pronouns of they, them, and theirs have two main uses in our culture when referring to people individually. When you don't know someone's pronouns, you typically refer to them as 'they/them.' For example, if you saw a backpack or purse on the ground in public, you might say, "Someone left their bag here—I wonder if they need it?"

They, them, and theirs can also be used as a single person's pronouns, which is what we will be discussing in detail here. This is done as a gender-neutral option in lieu of using a gendered pronoun. The practice of using they/them as individual pronouns has become so frequent that in 2019, Merriam-Webster didn't just add it to the dictionary—they also made it their word of the year.

Historically, we have used they/them pronouns since 1375, if not before, according to the Oxford Dictionary. It was used in writing all the way back then to refer to a singular person, not only a group of people.

What Does It Mean When Someone's Pronouns Are They/Them?

When someone uses they/them as their pronouns, it means that you should refer to them with those pronouns. Even if you think the person looks like a "she" or a "he," the appropriate thing to do is to use the pronouns that a person informs you are the right ones for them.

Because they/them pronouns are not gendered, you may safely assume that a person who uses them doesn't want to be referred to by gendered pronouns. You can't really assume anything else about the person's gender, though. That's because there are many reasons why a person might be best suited with non-gendered pronouns.

For instance, they might be nonbinary, gender expansive, transgender, bigender, or gender non-conforming. They also may identify in a way that doesn't fit any of those descriptions.

Why Are Pronouns Important?

Whether or not pronoun use feels important to you personally, it is an important subject overall. That's because using a person's correct pronouns is a matter of basic respect, which is something that everyone deserves. Correct pronoun usage is a validation of a person's gender, and gender validation is proven to have a positive impact on mental health outcomes.

The correct usage of pronouns is also validating and affirming for a person's gender identity, even if the pronouns that someone uses aren't gendered. The simple act of using a person's pronouns has been shown to make people feel that their gender identity is validated and affirmed, in turn, enhancing their well-being.

Pronouns are important because they mark the difference between having a positive experience with someone instead of a harmful or negative one.

Who Would Use They/Them Pronouns?

As we have learned by the growing usage of they/them pronouns, there are numerous types of people who would use them. The most important thing is to simply not make assumptions about a person's gender identity, as anyone could potentially be a fit for they/them pronouns. One notorious example of this is the slogan, "Femmes can be thems." This means that even if a person looks feminine to you, they might use they/them pronouns.

Nonbinary people are the most well-known group who are likely to use they/them pronouns. That's because non-gendered pronouns make sense as a fit for someone who does not identify within the binary box of male or female. But anyone who is gender diverse or expansive, bigender, or otherwise outside of the gender binary might use them.

Additionally, they/them pronouns might be used by a person in transition. This can occur when someone is going through the process of transition and does not yet feel settled.

What Are the 4 Gender Pronouns?

Pronouns can be either gendered or not gendered. They/them pronouns, as well as neo-pronouns, which include ze/zir and ey/em, are pronouns that are not gendered. This means that when you hear them, there are no assumptions to make about a person's gender identity. That's why they/them is the go-to for referring to someone whose gender you are unaware of.

On the other side of the coin, the pronouns she/her and he/him are gendered and comprise the four gendered pronouns. When you hear someone use the pronoun she, you can likely assume their identity as a woman or girl, and when you hear the usage of he, you can equally likely figure that person is a man or boy.

How to Ask Someone What Their Pronouns Are

We talk so much about pronouns now that you might be worried about there being a right and a wrong way to ask someone what their pronouns are. If that's the case, you'll be happy to learn it's very straightforward. If you want to know someone's pronouns—and if you want to avoid misgendering a person—ask them. "What are your pronouns?" or "What pronouns do you use?" are both perfect questions to ask.

When asking a person about their pronouns, you'll want to avoid using the word "preferred." We don't choose our identities, so it isn't a matter of preference. Specifically, no one decides to be cisgender or transgender any more than they choose their ethnicity or height. Not using the word "preferred" when asking someone what their pronouns are shows that you understand someone's identity as real and valid and that you are actively avoiding causing them harm.

What to Do If You Get Pronouns Wrong

It's completely normal and common to make mistakes in life, and pronoun usage is no exception. How you handle the situation is what someone will walk away remembering, so that's the key to focus on. A person's pronouns may not match what you assumed of their gender, and until we all stop making assumptions, which is a very natural thing for us to do, mistakes will be made.

Collaborate Consulting uses an acronym to help people learn about what to do when you accidentally use the wrong pronouns for someone. It's referred to as the A.C.M. Method.

A.C.M. Method

If you have made a mistake about someone's pronouns:

  • Apologize briefly
  • Correct your mistake
  • Move on

That's it! Nothing more is needed.

How to Learn More About They/Them Pronouns

Pronoun usage is an important topic, and it can take awhile to get used to using they/them pronouns in the singular if you are accustomed to mostly using them to refer to groups of people. It's wise to remember that you have always used they/them pronouns to refer to an individual whose pronouns you don't know. This can help make using they/them for individuals feel less foreign, as it's actually something we all have done our entire lives.

There are educational materials available that go in depth about pronoun usage and can help you gain an even deeper understanding about them. "What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She" discusses the history of pronoun use, language, and gender, and is suitable for adults and older readers. "Us: An Intro to Pronouns" is a book for younger readers and seeks to be an inclusive piece for LGBTQIA+ youth.

A Word From Verywell

If someone you know has recently started using they/them pronouns, or if you have begun using them yourself, you may find that the process isn't always a smooth one. There are many resources available to help LGBTQIA+ people, including support groups for others like you.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. They, pron. , adj. , adv. , and n. In: OED Online [Internet]. Oxford University Press; [cited 2023 Feb 16].

  2. Restar A, Jin H, Breslow A, Reisner SL, Mimiaga M, Cahill S, et al. Legal gender marker and name change is associated with lower negative emotional response to gender-based mistreatment and improve mental health outcomes among trans populations. SSM Popul Health. 2020 May 11;11:100595.

  3. Sevelius JM, Chakravarty D, Dilworth SE, Rebchook G, Neilands TB. Gender affirmation through correct pronoun usage: development and validation of the transgender women’s importance of pronouns (Tw-ip) scale. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Dec;17(24):9525.

By Ariane Resnick, CNC
Ariane Resnick, CNC is a mental health writer, certified nutritionist, and wellness author who advocates for accessibility and inclusivity.