Why Pronoun Use Matters

Using people's pronouns is a valuable harm reduction method

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Pronouns are the most common way that people refer to one another outside of using proper names. While you may be inclined to choose someone's pronouns for them, assuming you know how another person wants to be addressed can be a faulty proposition. It can also be a cause of unintentional harm.

Everyone has the right to decide what pronouns they go by, and it's everyone else's responsibility to use those pronouns correctly. We all want, and deserve, to feel seen. Using correct pronouns is an easy way to validate others. Let's examine what pronouns exist to ensure you're familiar with the range of them, then discuss why it's so important that everyone uses correct pronouns.

Commonly Used Third Person Pronouns

Pronouns may convey gender, but they also can be entirely separate from gender. There are some pronouns that clearly denote gender, and others that do not. Both of these pronoun types are used by other people in the third person.

Note, the first person use of pronouns includes:

  • I
  • Me
  • Mine
  • Myself

The second person usage of pronouns is

  • You
  • Yours
  • Yourself

Why The Word "Preferred" Doesn't Apply to Pronouns

If you've looked into the subject of pronoun use in the past, you may have encountered the word "preferred" as a prefix to pronouns, as in the question "What are your preferred pronouns?"

However, it's best that this word is avoided when discussing pronouns. Preferences tend to indicate that one is choosing something, whereas identity is not a choice. "What are your pronouns?" is the appropriate question to ask others, and, "My pronouns are..." is the safest way to share your own.

She/Her/Hers/Herself

The usage of she/her pronouns is commonly associated with women. However, a person may choose to use she/her pronouns even if their gender is not female. If a person's pronouns are she/her, you would refer to them in ways such as, "She left her book on the counter," or, "She went to her house herself."

He/Him/His/Himself

The usage of he/him pronouns is commonly associated with men. Similar to how it shouldn't be assumed that someone who uses she/her pronouns is a woman, a person may use he/him pronouns without being a man. To use he/him pronouns, sentences about that person would sound like, "He left his book on the counter," or, "He went to his house himself."

They/Them/Theirs/Themself

There's a misconception that the usage of they/them personal pronouns is new, or that it is grammatically incorrect to refer to a singular human as they. Both of these notions are false.

Historically, they/them has been used in situations where a person's gender is unknown, as in, "Someone left their hat, do you think they need it?" Usage of they/them pronouns in the personal setting would be, "They left their book on the counter," or, "They went to their house themself."

Neopronouns

Neopronouns are a category of pronoun that specifically don't connotate any gender, and that also don't have the historical plural usage of they/them. The usage of pronouns that do not denote gender is a growing movement. Some people, like this person, dedicate their social media accounts to helping others learn pronoun usage, including neopronouns.

Neopronouns include: ze/zir/zirself, ei/em/eir/eirself, and ne/nir/nemself. You would use these pronouns exactly as you would others. For example, for the pronouns ei/em, you'd say, "Ei left eir book on the counter," or, "Ei went to eir house eirself."

What Correct Pronoun Use Accomplishes

When we ask others what pronouns they use and then we honor them in conversation, we are conveying respect. We are also conveying inclusivity. For people who are not cisgender, this is particularly important.

If you are a cisgender person, you likely have not ever experienced the stress of not being perceived as the gender you are. But for anyone who is not cisgender, this is an all too common occurrence.

People who are transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and/or gender fluid experience a disproportionate amount of adversity and hardship on the subject of their gender.

Often, non-cis people are victims of violence because of their genders. That means that even though pronouns aren't necessarily an important topic to cis people, to non-cis people it is a topic that heavily impacts their lives, and the usage of incorrect pronouns is yet one more act of violence against them.

We have a long way to go as a society to make non-cis people feel as safe moving through life as cis people feel. Using the correct pronouns for trans, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and gender fluid people is the easiest first step in this direction that cis people can take. The act of using correct pronouns serves to show others that you see them for who they are, and creates safety for them.

The Harm Of Incorrect Pronoun Use

You would never choose a derogatory nickname for a person and decide to call them that instead of the name they told you was theirs. Doing that would be incredibly mean, as well as wholly outside the scope of acceptable social behavior.

You refer to people by the names they go by because everyone deserves that common decency. In that same vein, it's equally unacceptable to call someone by a different pronoun than the one(s) they use.

Pronouns are identifiers just like names. If you don't think a person's name suits them, you wouldn't say so, because it would be considered very rude.

The same holds true for pronouns. When a person has told you their pronouns, any feelings you may have about it should be kept to yourself.

While it may seem like a small matter to you, using the wrong pronouns for a person can be detrimental for their mental and emotional wellness. A person who has been misgendered is invalidated and alienated from others. Additionally, incorrect pronoun use can increase that person's dysphoria, further complicating and even potentially harming their relationship with their body.

What to Do If You Misgender Someone

Collaborate Consulting uses an acronym to help people remember how to respond in a situation where they have accidentally used incorrect pronouns and/or misgendered someone. If you have made a mistake about a person's pronouns, employ the A.C.M. method:

Apologize Briefly

The first step to take when you have referred to someone by the wrong pronoun is to acknowledge it. Doing so makes it clear that you understand you've made a mistake. However, once you have apologized briefly you should immediately head to the next step.

Spending time wallowing in your mistake, expressing that the correct pronoun usage is difficult for you, and/or continuing on in any way that shifts the emotional labor onto the other person isn't helpful. Your mistake is yours, so don't make anyone else have to do any work around it.

An example of an appropriate step after realizing your mistake would be, "I apologize, I said he and that person's pronouns aren't he/him."

Additionally, if someone has pointed out your mistake, it's a good idea to thank them for doing that. Informing others of their mistakes is hard, especially when that mistake is about personal identity. The act of thanking someone for pointing out your error acknowledges that they put in that work for you.

Correct

Once you've acknowledged your error, immediately use the correct pronoun. This step is also very quick, and nothing further is needed other than the correction. An example of how to express it is, "Her pronouns are she/her. She went to the bank."

Move On

Lastly, but just as importantly as the previous steps, once you have apologized and corrected the situation, you can move on from it right away. There's no discussion or processing about the issue needed. Just continue with the conversation right where it left off, and let everyone digest what happened without further commentary.

How to Be Better at Using Correct Pronouns

The main complaint about pronoun usage, especially in relation to people who use they/them pronouns or neopronouns, is that it feels hard to use anything except she or he when talking about others. Most of us were taught only those pronouns when we learned English, and then weren't taught anything further on the topic.

The best way to transcend this hurdle is simply to practice doing it. Choose low stakes situations to start with, such as reading stories out loud, to practice using pronouns beyond the two most common ones.

Like any new skill, within a short amount of time you'll have made some progress. Eventually it will be second nature for you and won't feel difficult at all. Mastering correct pronoun usage is a great first step to understanding more about gender identity.

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