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Pronouns, please!

09 August 2023

Jay Small, an environmental specialist for National Highways, discusses pronoun etiquette and why it’s not all that complicated.

Pronouns, please!
If you’re not sure which pronouns to use, it’s always better to ask than to assume. Image credit: Shutterstock

In the new wave of trans visibility and awareness, something as simple and commonplace as the use of pronouns has become a hotbed point of discussion.

Should we use them? When do we use them? What do they even mean these days?

The truth is that pronouns have always been a part of life, and all that’s changed is we now ask people to share, rather than assume.

It can seem scary, odd, or a little bit ridiculous to people who’ve never thought about it twice in their lives.

But that tiny amount of accommodation can mean the world to those of us on the other side of the fence.

What is a pronoun?

Pronouns are the little words we use to refer to things or people in place of their name.

In English, the most used pronouns are ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’, and ‘it’, and their grammatical variants.

Regarding third-person pronouns, the ones this article will mostly be referring to, ‘he’ and ‘she’ are likely to be the ones most people think of when they hear the word, denoting men/boys and women/girls respectively.

People may consider ‘they’ as a plural pronoun, but it’s also used to denote an individual of nonspecific gender.

For example, you might say, “I received an email from someone from the bank today. They told me my account has been opened.”

‘It’ pronouns are typically used for non-human animals and inanimate objects.

They are frequently not included when pronouns are considered, but they are just as grammatically correct as the rest.

Other languages

In other languages, pronoun usage can be very simple, or very complicated.

Some languages such as Mandarin Chinese only have one spoken pronoun for ‘she’, ‘he’, and ‘it’, though they are written differently.

Other languages like Tagalog, Armenian, and Turkish don’t use gendered pronouns at all.

On the other end, pronouns in languages such as French and Japanese aren’t only influenced by gender, but also by the relationship between the person speaking and the object of their statement or the person they’re speaking to.

The use of pronouns, like everything in language, has changed over the course of history, and continues to change as language and culture evolve.

Pronouns and the queer/gender non-conforming (GNC) community

While most people are assigned a set of pronouns early in life and are perfectly happy to be referred to that way for the rest of their lives, some people don’t get on with certain pronouns that may be assumed for them.

After all, pronouns bring with them a certain expectation.

People’s mental images of a person are influenced by their pronouns, and not always in ways people are happy with.

I'm a binary trans man, and that means growing up I was a ‘she’, and for my childhood and early-to-mid teens I didn’t think too much about that.

But as I grew to understand myself better, I decided I much preferred it when people used ‘he’ for me.

When people did that, I knew I was dressing and behaving (‘presenting’) in a way that gave people a much better mental picture of who I am.

For some people, presenting in a way that makes people assume the pronouns they’re comfortable with is very difficult.

It’s for these people that encouraging the sharing of pronouns is a considerate and helpful thing to do.

Binary trans people like myself aren’t the only people who struggle with assumed pronouns, either.

How pronouns can help nonbinary (enby) people

Alongside our visibility, people in the UK are becoming more aware of nonbinary people – those who don’t fit the social roles of either men or women and may choose to reflect that in their use of pronouns.

The singular ‘they’, as demonstrated earlier, has grown in usage as a chosen pronoun among nonbinary people.

Some choose to use ‘it’, to borrow pronouns from other languages such as ‘sie’ or ‘zir’, or even to devise novel pronouns as unique as their names.

These are referred to as ‘neopronouns’, and while they’re not very common, they have as much linguistic and historic precedent as the much more frequently used ones.

I’d recommend reading more into the subject if you’re interested!

Always better to ask than to assume

Some may use just one set of pronouns, some may have two or three that they’re comfortable with, and some people don’t mind what pronouns are used for them, and will accept any.

These combinations are personal, and if you’re not sure, it’s always better to ask than to assume.

Accepting and using a person’s preferred pronouns is a simple and easy way of showing your queer, trans, and GNC colleagues you respect them.

I promise – most of us won’t be that upset if you get it wrong every now and then, as long as you show us you’re making the effort!

Pronouns in the workplace

Even if you’re happy with the pronouns people assume for you, making the small effort to display your preferred pronouns at work can reassure others that they’re being respectful towards you.

It also tells the trans and GNC people you work with that they’re safe to do the same.

Some examples of where you can share your pronouns include in your email signature, on Teams, on name badges, among others.

Introducing yourself with your pronouns alongside your name in meeting is also an easy way of leading the way to creating a welcome and inclusive space.

If you’re not sure what’s a polite or appropriate way to go about sharing or asking for pronouns, most modern workplaces have an LGBTQ+ network which will always be open and willing to provide guidance.

From your trans and GNC colleagues, we appreciate your help, and your consideration!

  • Jay Small, environmental specialist at National Highways