Home Living That’s What They Said: A Pronoun Primer

That’s What They Said: A Pronoun Primer

Photo by Krista Kennedy, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Krista Kennedy, Creative Commons Licensing.

Since recently coming out as transgender, I have been answering a lot of questions. I expected that. What does it mean to be transgender? Are you going to have surgeries? How should I think about you now? How long have you felt this way? But there is one issue that apparently stands out above all the rest as the most confusing, the most frustrating, and most ignorable. That issue is pronouns.

Pronouns are that part of speech which allows us to refer to someone or something without using a noun or noun phrase. We can use “I” to talk about ourselves, “you” to talk about a person to whom we are speaking, “it” to talk about a table, “those” to talk about the clothes on the floor that you still have not picked up, “my” to talk about the keys you put back in the same place every time, and “he” to talk about your boyfriend or your father.

To communicate without the use of pronouns makes for unduly complicated phrases. Imagine those three magical words said without pronouns. “Daniel loves Tom” does not quite have the charm of “I love you.” It is more likely to induce giggles than light a fire in someone’s heart. And referring to someone, what they are doing and what with, becomes a daunting task without pronouns. “Julien is going to Julien’s parents’ house on Julien’s bike because Julien’s car died and Julien has not been able to take Julien’s car to the mechanic.”

Pronouns do not just permit us to refer to people and objects. They also allow us to share certain assumptions. If someone walking in front of us is in a dress and has long hair, it is likely that we will be moved to use the pronoun “she” to describe that person, because we use “she” when we refer to women and women are the people who wear dresses and have long hair. More subconsciously, a glance out of the corners of our eyes can latch onto something that will suggest a particular pronoun: someone’s wide shoulders, the way someone moves their hands, how close someone is standing to us. When we choose a pronoun, even if our choice is based only on a split-second observation, we suggest that we have ascertained the identity of that person.

All of these assumptions rely on the notion that gender is a binary concept, that is that there can only be men and women, and that gender is inextricably linked to one’s sex. Our use of gendered pronouns is not simply an act of reference, but a reinforcement of our social concepts of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. And those concepts only represent part of the story.

Scores of people prefer to be referred to with gendered pronouns. But keep in mind that some of these people may not be the ones that you would expect. A transwoman who was male-assigned at birth may prefer feminine pronouns. Likewise, a transman who was female-assigned at birth may prefer masculine pronouns. To use the established signals to determine pronoun usage may not be accurate or appropriate in these instances.

Because the assumptions behind gendered pronouns can be problematic, there is a growing number of people, myself included, who prefer pronouns which are gender-neutral. English is not a language that makes such a decision particularly easy, but there are a couple of options. One is using what is called a singular “they,” meaning that they, them, theirs, themself, or themselves are used to reference a single person. For instance: “Julien is not here yet, because they are riding their bike. We have to wait for them to get here.” Although grammar purists often come out with both fists swinging at such a suggestion, it is not as unprecedented as they seem to believe. Shakespeare, that lauded master of the pen, used a singular “they,” as did Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde, to name only a few. Additionally, it is very common for people to use “they” when they are unsure of someone’s gender, such as when they are talking about a new doctor that they know only by title and last name. Singular “they” is also used in instances when gender is known, but a more general reference is desired.

Sometimes it is more meaningful to create something new rather than reform something old and ill-fitting. To this end, people have made efforts to introduce new, invented pronouns. One example of these is the Spivak pronouns, named after the mathematician who developed them. Spivak pronouns are are “ey” instead of he/she/it/they, “em” instead of him/her/it/them, “eir(s)” instead of his/her/its/their(s), and “emself” instead of himself/herself/itself/themselves. Other people might prefer comparatively simple systems, such as using “per.” “Per was here and picked up per package for perself.”

A person may choose to be referred to as “he,” “she,” “they,” or “ey,” but we must remember that, when we use those words, we are talking about people. People deserve respect. People deserve to be understood. If understanding is difficult, people deserve to be asked thoughtful, clarifying questions. If understanding remains difficult, people still deserve to be respected. To intentionally use the wrong pronouns with someone is a dehumanizing act.

We must also remember that language is always changing. Every year words are added to dictionaries and to our vernacular, because every year brings changes to how we communicate and the concepts we need to communicate. And that is what language is about: communicating; sharing meaning with the people around us. The pronouns a person chooses are meaningful to them and when you are asked to use those pronouns, you are being asked to understand — or, at the very least, acknowledge — that meaning. Change can be complicated, but pronouns are a lot simpler than they seem.


  1. I am so proud to know you–thank you for
    helping me understand more so I can teach my children a new way.

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