The following information is from The Stonewall Center, University of Massachusetts Amherst; originally adapted in part from Ohio University’s “Preferred Pronouns Faculty FAQ”. We thank The Stonewall Center for generously allowing us to share this information with Cambrian College faculty and staff.
Gender identity refers to an individual’s internal sense of gender, regardless of the sex assigned to them at birth or the sex designation on their legal documents.
What is a pronoun?
A pronoun is a word that is used instead of a noun or a noun phrase to refer to individuals. Pronouns can be in the first person singular (I, me) or plural (we, us); second person singular or plural (you); and the third person singular (e.g., she/her, he/him, they/them, ze/hir) or plural (they/them).
What are gendered pronouns?
Gendered pronouns specifically reference someone’s gender: he/him/his or she/her/hers.
It is good practice to ask which pronouns a person uses. It is not good practice to assume someone’s pronouns based on their outward appearance. Respecting someone’s self-identification means using the gender pronouns with which they identify. Some people go by more than one set of pronouns.
If you do not know/have not asked someone’s pronouns, try to use “they/them” pronouns.
- He (Subjective), Him (Objective), His (Possessive), Himself (Reflexive)
- Example: The book is his. He identifies outside a gender binary.
- She (Subjective), Her (Objective), Hers (Possessive), Herself (Reflexive)
- Example: The book is hers. She identifies outside a gender binary.
- They (Subjective), Them (Objective), Theirs (Possessive), Themselves (Reflexive)
- Example: The book is theirs. They identify outside a gender binary.
- Ze (Subjective – pronounced “zee”), Hir (Objective – pronounced “here”), Hirs (Possessive – pronounced “heres”), Hirself (Reflexive – pronounced “hereself”)
- Example: The book is hirs. Ze identifies outside a gender binary.
- Name Only
- Choose Not to Disclose
What are non-gendered or nonbinary pronouns?
Non-gendered or nonbinary pronouns are not gender specific and are often used by people who identify outside of a gender binary. The most common set of nonbinary pronouns is they/them/their used in the singular (e.g., Jadzia identifies as genderqueer; they do not see themselves as either female or male). Other nonbinary pronouns include ze (pronounced “zee”) in place of she/he, and hir (pronounced “here”) in place of his/him/her (e.g., Jadzia runs hir own business, but ze is more well-known as an author).
What about “it” and “he-she?”
The terms “it” or “he-she” are slurs used against transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals. These are considered disrespectful and should not be used.
Why should I be asking people what pronouns they use?
It is important to ask for pronouns because you cannot assume how someone identifies their gender based on their appearance. Using the wrong pronouns for someone may lead them to feel disrespected, invalidated, and marginalized.
What is the best way to ask someone about their pronouns?
You can simply ask, “What pronouns do you use for yourself?” or “What pronouns should I be using for you?” Asking for pronouns may feel awkward at first, but getting someone’s pronouns wrong may be even more awkward.
What if I make a mistake?
It’s okay! Everyone slips up from time to time. If you use the wrong pronoun for someone, you can say something like, “Sorry, I meant they,” and continue your conversation.
What if I hear others making a mistake?
In most cases, you may gently correct the person who made the mistake without further embarrassing the individual who was misgendered. You can say something like, “Actually, Jadzia uses ‘they’ for themselves.”
Suggestions for Instructors to Respect the Gender Identity of Students
In small classes, instructors may elect to use various methods to give students the ability to indicate their pronouns, including:
- Have students introduce themselves, giving the name and pronouns they use for themselves;
- Pass out cardstock and have the students write down their names and, if desired, their pronouns to place on the desk or table in front of them. You could also use name tags for the first few class sessions.
- Ask the students to write down their names and pronouns on an index card for you to collect (this is a less useful strategy because you learn students’ pronouns, but the students do not learn each other’s pronouns).
In large classes, instructors should avoid gendering students unless you know how they identify their gender. Suggestions for how to call on students without gendering them:
- Gesture to the person you are calling on and say something like, “as you pointed out” or “as they pointed out”.
- Instead of saying something like, “the gentleman in the back, what is your question?” you can say, “the person in the back in the purple sweater, what is your question?”
Pronoun Dos and Don’ts
- Do recognize that everyone has pronouns—not just trans people—and that asking pronouns is very important, both so someone is not misgendered and so that trans people are not the only ones who will feel the need to share their pronouns.
- Do ask people the pronouns they use for themselves whenever you ask people their name, such as when you meet someone for the first time or when you do go-arounds at meetings. Keep in mind that people may change the pronouns they go by, so it is necessary to ask pronouns in go-arounds regularly
- Don’t refer to pronouns such as “they/them/their” or “ze/hir/hir” as “gender-neutral pronouns.” While some trans people identify as gender-neutral, many see themselves as gendered, but as gender nonconforming. Better language is “nonbinary pronouns.”
- Don’t describe the pronouns someone uses as “preferred pronouns.” It is not a preference. The pronouns that a person uses are their pronouns and the only ones that should be used for them. A better way of phrasing this is “personal pronouns.”
- Don’t say “male pronouns” and “female pronouns.” Pronouns are not necessarily tied to someone’s gender identity: some trans people use “he/him/his” or “she/her/her,” but do not identify as male or female, respectively.
- Don’t indicate that you “don’t care what pronouns are used for me,” if you are a cisgender person. Such a statement reinforces the privilege that many cis people have in not needing to worry about the pronouns that people use for them—that they are not going to be misgendered. It also invalidates the experiences of trans people, many of whom struggle with getting people to use their correct pronouns.
Resources on How to Use, Ask, and Share Pronouns
- Resources on Personal Pronouns
- Practice with Pronouns
- University of Maryland LGBT Equity Center: “Sharing Your Pronouns” video
- University of Iowa pronoun tutorial video
- International Pronouns Day
- Sinclair Sexsmith, “Dear (Cis) People Who Put Your Pronouns on Your ‘Hello My Name Is’ Name Tag”: article
- Mary Retta. “Work Sucks, Especially When People Get Your Pronouns Wrong”: article
- RJ Joseph, “Degendering the Language of Customer Service”: article
- Dean Spade, “We Still Need Pronoun Go-Rounds”: article
- Oliver L. Haimson and Lee Airton, “Making Space for Them, Her, Him, and ‘Prefer Not to Disclose’ in Group Settings: Why Pronoun-Sharing Is Important But Must Remain Optional”: article
- “What Does It Mean to Misgender Someone?”: article
- AC Dumlao, “100 Ways to Make the World Better for Non-Binary People”: article