Pronouns – What They Are And Why We Should Use Them
We use pronouns every day when referring to others. However, unless you ask, you might not be using the right ones. While some people have no issue with the default pronouns of ‘he/him’ and ‘she/her’, others have preferred personal pronouns that are more in line with their identities.
It’s important to note that someone’s sexual or gender identity might have no bearing on which pronouns they use. Both people who are gender-conforming, and gender non- conforming may want to use gender-neutral pronouns. That’s why it pays to ask about pronouns instead of making assumptions.
The History Behind The Use Of Pronouns
It’s true that the current conversation about personal pronouns is fairly recent but the use of gender-neutral terms is not new. Historically, we’ve been using gender neutral terms such as ‘they’ whenever the gender of the person that was being discussed was unknown or unimportant.
If you’re wondering how long ago the practice started – there’s evidence that this was in place from as early as the fourteenth century. It’s possible that its use goes back even farther than that though because it’s hard to determine the history of spoken language.
In the eighteenth century, there was some pushback against using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun but that complaint ignored the fact that a transition in language had already happened. For some time, ‘you’ was used as a singular pronoun until it started being used as a plural one as well.
This was in line with the language’s transition from using older words such as ‘thy’, ‘thou’, and ‘thine’. For the most part, those who are resistant to ‘they’ being used as a singular pronoun are ignoring the way languages change over time. In fact, Merriam Webster most recently put forward that it’s acceptable to use ‘they’ in its singular form.
Why Is It Important To Use The Right Pronouns?
When you ask for and use someone’s preferred pronouns, it shows that you’re acknowledging their identity. It’s also a point of respect. You can even go further by establishing your own preferred pronouns. While you may use traditional ‘he/him’ or ‘she/her’ terms, pointing it out goes a long way in normalizing the idea that everyone has the right to declare how they’d like to be addressed.
What Are Some Of The Pronouns That Are Being Used?
‘They/them’ are still the most popular gender-neutral pronouns that are being used but they’re far from the only ones. Currently, persons also use ‘ze/hir’, ‘ze/zir’, ‘per/pers’, ‘ey/em’, ‘xe/xem’, and ‘ae/aer’. There are also those who prefer no pronouns at all, and so using their given name is the preferred form of address.
How Do People Use These Pronouns?
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy. To use ‘they/them’ as an example, a sentence would look like this:
My friend, Emily, writes children’s books. They have published five books and you can find their work on this website.
Other pronouns work similarly.
My friend, Emily, writes children’s books. Ze has published five books and you can find zir work on this website.
For people who do not use pronouns, the sentence would look a bit different.
My friend, Emily, writes children’s books. Emily has published five books and you can find Emily’s work on this website.
Of course, if you’re ever unsure, it’s best to do some research.
Is There A Limit To Who Uses These Gender-Neutral Pronouns?
There is no limit to who can use gender-neutral pronouns. Someone’s preferred pronouns have no direct bearing on their sexual identity. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be gender non-conforming, any of these pronouns might feel more comfortable for you. It’s up to you to determine what best reflects your identity.
What About Greetings and Titles?
The use of the right forms of address doesn’t stop with someone’s preferred pronouns. In fact, people have been using the title ‘Mx.’ in place of the traditional Miss, Ms., and Mr. for some time. When it comes to other forms of greeting such as ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, it’s best to do some research to find the right mix of terms that would ensure that everyone remains comfortable.
When Should You Ask Someone For Their Pronouns?
Even though they’re called personal or preferred pronouns, it doesn’t mean that they’re private. There’s no shame in asking someone how they would like to be addressed. To avoid any awkwardness or discomfort from using the wrong pronouns, it’s best to get it done during the introductions. Again, talking about your own pronouns makes the process easier.
It’s understandable that you might have some reservations about pronouncing the terms incorrectly or using them awkwardly in a sentence but many people are patient with that. They’re usually more than happy to help you with pronunciations and usage so you’re both comfortable while interacting. Some momentary learning is much better than the discomfort of the other person’s experiences from being called by the wrong pronouns.
If you must speak about someone you’ve never met and there’s no way for you to determine what the preferred pronouns are, it’s still acceptable to default to ‘they/them’. When you have a chance to confirm the right pronouns, you should do it.
There are still a lot of questions about the use of pronouns and there’s a lot to learn. One thing that’s true is it’s perfectly natural for languages to expand as people develop more ways to express themselves. In this case, pronouns are a way for people to declare their identities. As the number of acceptable terms continues to grow, it’s a good idea to be aware of the changes. When meeting someone for the first time, always ask for their preferred pronouns. It might be uncomfortable in the beginning but things will flow more smoothly if you do!