Pronouns are words we use to refer to each other in the 3rd person.
When we know the identity of the person we’re referring to we often used gendered pronouns, such as “he/him/his” or “she/her/hers”. For example:
“Geoff is my partner. He works in the NHS.”
“Have you met Fiona? It’s her first day.”
When we don’t know their identity, we tend to use the gender-neutral singular “they/them/their”. For example:
“Someone left their phone behind. I hope they come back for it.”
When can our use of pronouns go wrong?
Most of us have learned to assume someone’s gender identity based on clues such as their appearance, voice, or name. We judge whether they are male or female and use gendered pronouns “he” or “she” based on this.
This can go wrong when someone has a gender-neutral name such as “Sam”, or because they do not conform to our expectations of gendered characteristics. It can also happen to people who are transgender or whose gender identity falls outside of “male” and “female”, as with non-binary and genderqueer identities.
For most of us our gender is a fundamental part of our identity. If someone uses the wrongly-gendered pronouns to refer to us it can be very embarrassing. If we’re not sure what pronouns someone uses, it’s a good idea to use the gender-neutral “they/them/their”.
It’s also a good idea to avoid gendered expressions such as “Ladies and gentlemen” and “Morning Gents!” so that you’re not excluding people whose gender identity falls outside of these labels. Alternatives include “Folks”, “Colleagues” and “Everyone”.
We call the pronouns someone uses their “personal pronouns”. We avoid the term “preferred pronouns”, as is sometimes used, because this makes it sound like an optional preference. Respecting a person’s pronouns is not optional.
Using the wrong pronouns
Using the wrong gendered pronouns for someone is often called “misgendering”. Deliberately misgendering someone is offensive and is a type of harassment. Using the incorrect pronouns for a person, even accidentally, can be upsetting because it suggests that you don’t see them the way they see themselves.
If you make an honest mistake with someone’s pronouns you should correct yourself and move on. Never make a big deal of it. This just draws attention to the mistake and makes the situation more uncomfortable.
Sharing our pronouns
It is helpful to make your pronouns known, for example when you introduce yourself, in your email signature and in your biographies on websites etc. so that people know which ones to use.
You may feel it is obvious which pronouns you use, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Normalising the practice of sharing them makes it easier for people whose pronouns are less obvious, and makes the environment more inclusive.
Some people may feel uncomfortable sharing their pronouns, especially if they’re currently unsure about their gender identity or not ready to share that with other people. For this reason, nobody should be compelled to share them. It is however worth bearing in mind that not expressing a preference will not stop people assuming your pronouns so it may be worth expressing what your current preference is, on the understanding that it’s absolutely okay to change this later.
Once someone has made you aware of their pronouns you should always use those. This applies whether or not the person to whom you're referring is there.
Changing old habits can take some work but this is one of the ways we can change our language to acknowledge diversity, show respect and be more inclusive.
Further information about pronouns and their usage.