Pronouns Explained


Terms to know:
Cisgender: describes a person who identifies with their sex assigned at birth
Transgender: describes a person who does not identify with their sex assigned at birth
AFAB and AMAB stand for assigned female at birth and assigned male at birth, respectively. These refer to a person’s sex.
Pronouns: the words that are used to refer to people or things
Neopronouns: new types of pronouns used in the place of traditional pronouns (she/her, he/him, they/them).

Whether or not you know it, you use pronouns a lot. They are an extremely important tool in language—being used to refer to people or things without repeating their names—but they are also specifically important to the transgender (trans) community. Using correct pronouns is crucial in making trans people feel accepted. Imagine you are a cisgender female (meaning you were assigned female at birth and still identify with that gender) and someone kept repeatedly calling you a boy, or using he/him pronouns when referring to you, even when you asked them to stop. This is the everyday reality of being trans; it can feel gut-wrenching when the outside world doesn’t agree with the way you feel on the inside. Pronouns can be confusing, even for trans people, but it’s important that you try to use correct pronouns so that you can make the trans people in your community feel seen. To facilitate this, here are some tips to remember when it comes to pronouns.

They/Them pronouns can be used in a singular sense:
As kids, we were taught that, fundamentally, they/them pronouns are used to talk about a group of people or things: for example, “That’s One Direction, they’re a popular boy band.” Thus, it can be difficult to recognize they/them pronouns as being singular because it deviates from what we’ve learned. However, we actually use they/them pronouns every day for things that are singular: for example, “Oh no! The person who was sitting here left their jacket.” You may know someone who uses they/them pronouns. This just means that in the place of “he” or “she,” use “they” instead. Say “I like their shirt” instead of “I like her shirt.”

It’s helpful to remember that no matter how out-of-the-ordinary [neopronouns] may seem, they’re just another way to refer to something.

Some people use multiple sets of pronouns:
You may know people who use multiple sets of pronouns, such as people who use she/they pronouns, they/he pronouns, or who use “any” or “all” pronouns. To refer to these people, use either set of pronouns! If someone uses he/they pronouns, you can refer to them as “he” or as “they.” These people choose to use multiple sets because they enjoy being called both. Pay attention to the order in which people say or write their pronouns, since people tend to put their preferred pronoun set first. For example, if someone uses they/she pronouns, they likely prefer they/them pronouns, but still use she/her pronouns.

Neopronouns are a category of new pronouns:
According to Neopronouns Explained, neopronouns are a “category of new pronouns that are used in the place of pronouns such as she, he, or they” Some neopronouns that you may have heard of or seen are xe/xem/xyr (pronounced zee, zem, zeer), ey/em/eir (pronounced ay, em, ear), or it/its. Neopronouns emerged very recently, so they can be confusing for a lot of people. It’s helpful to remember that no matter how out-of-the-ordinary they may seem, they’re just another way to refer to something. For example, you might say, “I told xem that xyr jacket looks cute.” It’s confusing, but with practice it becomes more natural.

Pronouns do not equal gender:
The pronouns that people use do not always reflect their gender. While it’s true that we often connect she/her pronouns with “girl” or “female” and he/him pronouns with “boy” or “masculine,” pronouns and gender are two different things. Gender is a facet of identity (the way someone feels on the inside), while pronouns are a facet of expression (the way someone chooses to show themselves to the world). While some people might feel like their gender on the inside is that of a boy, they might want to express themselves in a more stereotypically feminine way. For cisgender people it’s often the case that their gender on the inside matches with the way they want to outwardly express themselves, leading to the common idea that pronouns are deeply connected with gender, when this is not always true. The idea that pronouns don’t necessarily correlate with gender is understandably confusing. It’s helpful to remember that pronouns are just what people like hearing when they’re being referred to. It’s as simple as that!

Gender and pronouns don’t necessarily correspond to appearance:
Don’t judge a book by it’s cover! Try your best to use gender-neutral they/them pronouns for someone until you know their pronouns. It’s often difficult for trans people to correct others on their pronouns because we fear being judged, frowned upon, or even assaulted. According to CBS News, 2021 was the deadliest year for trans people on record and that’s why we need allies who are willing to educate themselves and try their best to work towards a society without gender stereotypes.

When in doubt, ask!
Ask everyone what their pronouns are if they don’t tell you. Even if you think you know someone’s pronouns, ask if you aren’t completely sure. There’s no harm in asking, but there is harm in misgendering someone.

It’s okay to make mistakes!
Everyone makes mistakes when it comes to pronouns. Even I, as a trans person, still struggle sometimes with wrapping my head around all of it. It’s important just to try your best until it becomes something natural. If you slip up, that’s okay, just correct yourself and continue on.

So what can you do to support the trans community? For starters, you can share your own pronouns. Whether this be through social media or out loud when introducing yourself, sharing your pronouns creates a safer space for trans people to share theirs. Next, you can correct others when they mess up someone’s pronouns. Make sure to always use people’s correct pronouns even when they aren’t there. Finally, continue to educate yourself on trans identities, perhaps by reading articles such as this one, and most importantly, respect everyone’s identity, even if you don’t understand it.