This guide was adapted from the Smith College resource on pronouns.
One of the easiest ways university staff, faculty, and student leaders can make the spaces they work in feel safer for their trans and nonbinary student and peers is by learning and using their correct pronouns. This resource is designed to help you understand what pronouns are, how they’re used in day-to-day conversation, how to learn the pronouns of others, and what to do if you make a mistake.
What are pronouns?
Pronouns are the words we use to refer to one another. They’re an easy shorthand that replace nouns in speech and writing and are used in sentences like “How are you today?” or “I’m doing well, thank you.” While “I” and “you” are both pronouns, this resource is mostly focused on singular, third person pronouns. These are the words used to refer to someone other than yourself or the person you’re speaking to. In English, these pronouns are gendered.
People often assume they know what someone’s pronouns will be based on their name, the way they dress, or the way they look. This assumption is harmful as it reinforces the idea that people of a certain gender have to look, dress, or act a specific way. It’s important to remember as well that pronouns don’t tell you what someone’s gender identity might be, just what words they are most comfortable being referred to with.
See the table below for some examples of how common pronouns are used in sentences. Below that are some dos and don’ts for sharing pronouns and what to do if you or someone else makes a mistake, as well as some further pronoun resources.
|She/her/hers||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. She moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find her in Glengarry House. Her favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
|He/him/his||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. He moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find him in Glengarry House. His favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
|They/them/theirs||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. They moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find them in Glengarry House. Their favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
|Ze/zir/zirs||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. Ze moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find zir in Glengarry House. zir favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
|Ze/hir/hirs||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. Ze moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find hir in Glengarry House. Hir favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
|Xe/xir/xirs||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. Xe moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find xir in Glengarry House. Xir favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
|E/em/eirs||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. E moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find em in Glengarry House. Eir favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
|No pronouns||Brennan is studying Journalism at Carleton. Brennan moved to Ottawa from Burlington, and you can find Brennan in Glengarry House. Brennan’s favourite place to study is the fourth floor of the library.|
If someone tells you they don’t have pronouns, just refer to them by their name any time you’d normally use a pronoun.
Some people use multiple pronouns. In this case, you can choose any of the pronouns they’re comfortable with or switch back and forth. If someone is comfortable with any or all pronouns, the same rules apply.
1-on-1 Pronoun Sharing
It is becoming more and more common to ask people for their pronouns when you first meet them, or to ask a group to share their pronouns when you first come together (for example, at the beginning of a staff meeting or on the first day of class for a semester). While it’s important to ensure you are referring to people with the correct pronouns, this practice carries a risk of forcing transgender or nonbinary people to publicly out themselves as transgender.
DO: Share your own pronouns.
Sharing your own pronouns is an easy way to help transgender and nonbinary people feel welcomed, as well as to open the possibility for them to do the same with you. Some easy ways to share your pronouns are:
- Including them in your email signature next to your name
- Including them in your Zoom display name
- Adding them to the contact information section of a syllabus
- When introducing yourself to a group or a new colleague, adding them after your name (“Hi, my name’s Zoe, and I use she/her pronouns”)
DON’T: Pressure others into sharing their own pronouns.
While it’s great to volunteer your own pronouns or provide space for people to share their own, it’s important to remember that not everyone is comfortable sharing their pronouns with everyone else. For example, it’s great to add your own pronouns to your email signature, but you shouldn’t tell your employees they have to do the same.
If you’re sharing pronouns in a group setting and someone says their name but not their pronouns, they might have purposefully not included their pronouns in their introduction, so you should give them the opportunity to pass.
DO: Use the pronouns that other people want to be referred to by.
If someone has told you the pronouns they use, follow their wishes and use those pronouns. This practice is respectful and contributes to a safe and welcoming campus culture. If someone has told you their pronouns and you repeatedly refuse to use them, you are in violation of the university’s Human Rights Policy.
DON’T: Assume that someone’s pronouns are public knowledge.
Just because someone shares their pronouns with you, that doesn’t mean everyone else also knows them. When you learn someone’s pronouns, it’s okay if there’s anyone they don’t want those pronouns used in front of. This is also a good opportunity to figure out whether or not they would like you to correct other people if they slip up.
DON’T: Ask for pronouns if they aren’t necessary for the interaction you’re having.
While it’s good to get to know the pronouns of people you interact with regularly, such as your classmates, students, or colleagues, for short or infrequent interactions this information may not be necessary.
For example, a university staff member who works in the Registrar’s Office does not need to know the pronouns of every student they serve. To avoid putting students in an awkward position and to steer away from assuming people’s pronouns, it is easier to simply refer to them by their name if you need to explain their situation to a colleague (This is Jim, who’s here to pick up a diploma, but Jim doesn’t have ID today). This advice also applies to professors asking students to answer questions in a large classroom.
DO: Use gender neutral pronouns for people whose pronouns you don’t know (as long as you do so consistently).
If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, it’s normally okay to use gender neutral pronouns (they/them/theirs) to refer to them until you learn the correct pronouns. However, if you choose to do this, make sure you’re doing it for everyone, not just people you perceive as transgender, nonbinary, or gender-non-conforming. People pick up on when they’re being treated differently than everyone else, and it’s just as harmful and inappropriate to use “they” and “them” pronouns for a transgender woman who uses “she” and “her” as it is to use binary pronouns like “he” or “she” for someone who uses “they” and “them”.
Pronoun Sharing in Classrooms and Other Group Settings
It’s important to make sure people can be referred to in a way that makes them feel comfortable and respected. At the same time, however, no one should ever be forced to share their pronouns, as this can be intimidating or force transgender people to out themselves when they are not ready to do so.
DO: Explain the purpose of pronoun sharing and lead by example.
If you’re initiating pronoun sharing in a space where you’re a leader, it’s a good idea to give a quick description (no more than a sentence or two) on what pronouns are and why they matter. You can then follow this up with your own pronouns in order to demonstrate what you mean. Here’s a sample of how to do this:
“Before we go any further, I’d like to invite everyone to introduce themselves with their name and, if they’re comfortable, their pronouns. Pronouns are the words we use to refer to one another. For example, my name is Brennan, and I use the pronouns they, them, and theirs.
DON’T: Make pronoun sharing mandatory.
As mentioned above, pronoun sharing should always be something people do to their comfort. It can be useful to give a disclaimer that people only need to share their pronouns if they’re comfortable with it, and that they have the option to pass. If someone forgets to share their pronouns, they might have done so intentionally, so it’s best to ignore it rather than reminding them.
DO: Provide a way for people to share their pronouns non-verbally.
Another great option is allowing for pronoun sharing in writing, whether by adding pronouns to a name card or as part of a course introduction form. This reduces the way pronoun circles can put people on the spot.
The other benefit to asking for pronouns on a course intro questionnaire or similar “get to know you” form is that it allows for nuance between which pronouns to use publicly in class versus when talking to a student one on one. Here are some sample questions you could include:
- What pronouns would you like me to use when we talk one on one?
- What pronouns would you like me to use to refer to you in front of the class?
- If someone else gets your pronouns wrong, would you like me to correct them?
Mistakes happen in all aspects of life, and pronouns are no exception to that. It’s likely that at some point you’ll get someone’s pronoun wrong. You’ll also probably hear other people make mistakes and wonder whether you should step in and correct them.
Getting someone’s pronoun wrong is a form of misgendering – referring to a transgender, nonbinary, or gender-non-conforming person with gendered language that doesn’t match their gender identity. While it’s okay (and totally normal!) for this to happen occasionally, repeatedly misgendering someone is a violation of Carleton University’s Human Rights policy.
If you make a mistake and either realize yourself or are corrected, the best thing to do is quickly correct yourself and move on. This addresses the potential hurt you’ve cause without creating a bigger issue or making the situation about yourself.
If someone else makes a mistake, whether you should correct them depends on a few factors. If, for example, the person who was misgendered shared their pronouns publicly with the whole class, it’s safe to assume you can correct people on their behalf. However, if you learned their pronouns privately, you should clarify with them whether the person did make a mistake or if they know a different set of pronouns for that person.
DO: Correct yourself without breaking the flow of your speech.
If you’ve realized you’ve misgendered someone in the middle of a sentence, quickly apologize, slip the correct pronoun in right after the error, and keep talking.
“When Amy asked me to look over her – sorry, their – essay, I told them it was already perfect”.
DON’T: Make the situation about yourself.
When we do something to hurt someone’s feelings, it’s common to want to apologize extensively in order to reassure the person you’ve hurt that you’re not a bad person, you’ve simply made a mistake. However, in reality this is more about realigning what’s happened with your image of yourself than it is about undoing any harm caused.
Getting someone’s pronouns wrong once doesn’t make you a bad person or any less of an ally to the transgender community. However, dwelling on what happened or apologizing over and over again can create an awkward situation that spotlights the transgender person. It also shifts the burden of fixing the situation onto the person you’ve harmed, who might feel like they have to comfort you or make you feel better. This isn’t their job, as the harm was not their fault.
If you find yourself regularly referring to one or several people with the wrong pronouns, a good course of action is to practice by yourself or with a friend, family member, or colleague who is not transgender. Think of some phrases you may need to say to that person, and say them over and over with the correct pronoun. This will help dislodge the incorrect language from your brain, and also takes the burden off of the person you’re misgendering to have to constantly correct you.
Resources and Further Reading
If you’re looking for more information on pronouns, MyPronouns.org is an excellent database.