COVID-19 Updates: Fall Semester

Pronouns: Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions about using gender pronouns. Please contact Janae Due (jdue@middlebury.edu) with any additional questions.

What is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that refers to either the people talking (I or you) or someone or something that is being talked about (he, she, them, and it).

What is a gender pronoun?

A gender pronoun is a pronoun an individual identifies with and what others use when talking to or about that individual. It is the pronoun that a person uses for themself (he/him, she/her, they/them, ze/hir, etc).

Never refer to a person as “it” or “he-she,” unless the individual requests that you do so. These are offensive slurs used against trans and gender non-conforming individuals.

Refer to the table to see some examples of gender pronouns used in English sentences:

 

HuffPost: Non-Binary Pronouns and Why They Matter (2017) 

Singular "they/them" pronouns?

Yes! Transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming (GNC) folx may use they/them pronouns for themsevles (along with other pronouns). Singular they isn’t as uncommon as you think! Many people who use English already use singular they when talking about a single person with an unknown or unspecified gender. Now use the correct pronouns when someone specifies that they/them are the pronouns they use.

Fun fact: They, used as a singular pronoun, can now also be found in dictionaries. Mirriam-Webster Dictionary chose they as the 2019 Word of the Year.

 

How do I ask someone what their gender pronoun is?

Try asking: "What is your pronoun?" or "Which pronouns do you use?" or "Can you remind me which pronouns you use for yourself?"

  • It can feel awkward at first, but asking for a pronoun can avoid hurtful assumptions. People will most likely appreciate your effort if you start off by asking what their pronoun is, and for those who aren’t familiar with pronouns, this is your chance to share what you know!

If you are asking as part of an introduction exercise and you want to quickly explain what a pronoun is, you can try something like this: “Tell us your name, where you come from, and your gender pronoun. That means the pronoun you like to be referred to with. For example, my pronouns are they, them, and theirs.”

  • When taking class attendance, one method is to call roll by last name, and have students respond with their preferred name and pronouns.
Can people's pronouns change?

Yes! Gender pronouns are may or may not change over time. This is why it’s important to consistently share your pronouns with people and ask for others’ pronouns, even if it is with people you know.

It’s also good practice to use gender-neutral greetings to not assume people’s gender or pronouns. Try “everyone,” folks/folx,” and “y’all” instead of “ladies,” “gentlemen,” and “guys.”

 

Why is it important to respect preferred pronouns as students, faculty, staff, administrators and allies?

When someone is referred to by the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, or alienated. Asking and correctly using someone’s correct pronoun is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity and to cultivate an environment that respects all gender identities. Making a commitment to this action sets an example for our community.

What if I make a mistake?

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. If you use the wrong pronoun, apologize, correct it, and then move on. If you realize your mistake after the fact, apologize in private and move on. Avoid continually talking about how bad you feel for making the mistake, because it could make the person feel like they need to console you and/or create uncomfortable or unsafe environments for them if others are not aware of differences between their lived name and pronouns and their legal/dead name/pronouns. The best apology is correcting your mistake and not doing it again.

Using correct pronouns takes intentional practice and effort. Using correct pronouns can help someone feel included, respected, and validated. This is a great way to practice intentional advocacy to transgender and gender non-conforming folx. 

 

What else can I do?

In your classes or elsewhere on campus you may hear students or colleagues using the wrong pronouns for someone. In most cases, it is appropriate to gently correct them without further embarrassing the individual for whom the incorrect pronoun was used.

  • You can try saying something like “Actually, Frankie uses she/her pronouns,” and then move on.

  • It might help to ask the individual who has been misidentified what, if anything, they would like you to do.

    • You can say something like “I noticed that you were getting referred to with the wrong pronoun earlier, and I know that that can be really hurtful. Would you be okay with me speaking to them and reminding them about your personal pronoun? What can I do to make sure that this group is a safe space for you.” Follow up if necessary, but take your cues from the individual.

There are ways to advocate for pronoun usage and making the act of stating pronouns a routine one. Here are some ways:

  • Introduce yourself with your pronouns with individuals and in large groups. 

    • “Hi, my name is John. I use he/him pronouns.”

    • “My name is Natalie, and my pronouns are they/them.”

  • You can add your pronouns to your email signature, and if applicable, to your business cards, name placards, nametags, and your syllabi.