Pronouns – what they are and why they matter

Many people use pronouns every day without giving them much thought – but correct pronoun use matters a lot.

Pronouns are a small set of words such as ‘I’, you, he’ and him, her that take the place of using a person’s name. For example, if you say “Joe saw Jill, and he waved at her”, the pronouns he and her take the place of ‘Joe and ‘Jill, respectively.

In English, pronouns associate a person with a particular gender, eg, he for males and ‘she for females (in te reo Māori all pronouns are gender neutral).

However, not everyone identifies as male or female, so using he’ and ‘she’ can lead to false assumptions and mistakes. This can leave people being identified in the wrong way and result in them feeling excluded, misunderstood and potentially disrespected or demeaned.

Many trans and gender non-conforming people experience the repeated use of incorrect pronouns, which can be harmful to them. People who are gender neutral, non-binary or gender non-conforming may choose other pronouns such as ‘they’, their’ and them’.

Here are some tips for using pronouns:

1. State your pronoun

When you introduce yourself, state your pronoun (if you feel comfortable). This lets people know your preference and signals to them that they can, too.

2. Don’t force others

At the same time, don’t force or expect others to state their pronoun. If they don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable, then that’s their choice.

3. Use someone’s chosen pronoun

Once you know someone’s pronouns, start using them. Validate their identity and show respect by using their chosen pronouns.

4. Listen and learn

If you’re not sure what pronoun to use, listen to how others refer to the person. If you feel comfortable, you could politely and respectfully ask the person what their pronouns are.

5. Don’t make assumptions

Try not to make any assumptions about a person and what pronouns they might use. Stop and think before ‘assigning’ someone to a gender.

6. Mistakes do happen

If you make a mistake, apologise, correct yourself and move on. Don’t dwell on it as this may embarrass the person.

7. Stand up for others

If you witness someone using incorrect pronouns in relation to someone else, let them know what the correct pronouns are. This is especially important if it’s being done repeatedly or maliciously.

8. Email signature

Think about putting your pronouns underneath your name in your email signature. This not only lets people know your pronouns, it also normalises it for everyone, and sends an inclusive signal to others.

References

  1. Pronouns in the workplace Diversity Works NZ
  2. Understanding gender diversity Health Navigator NZ
  3. Gender-inclusive language Digital Government NZ
  4. Pronoun use in email signatures Te Kawa Mataaho, NZ
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team.