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June 7, 2024 3 Min Read

Understanding Pronouns And Why They Are Important

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Why are pronouns so important and how do you know which ones to use? 

This is a question that comes up often, especially with those who may be new to understanding pronouns or those confused as to why the pronouns you are asked to use for a friend, family member, or colleague, don’t match up with your personal beliefs, religion, or understanding.

Most of us use pronouns in our everyday language and have a general concept of what they are. Pronouns are a way we refer to people, places, and things without being so formal. Think of them as language shortcuts. Instead of using someone’s name every time we refer to them in the conversation, or naming every person in the group, we typically use pronouns such as “she, her, he, him, we, or they” as a shortcut to identify who we’re referring to. Instead of naming the object each time it comes up in conversation, we use subject pronouns such as “it, that, or they”. 

For example, if you’re in conversation at work and referring to your colleagues in a specific department, let’s say Human Resources, instead of having to name everyone in that department or saying “HR department” each time, you might use “they or them” to refer to the group. Or maybe you’re at dinner and discussing your child’s teacher who goes by Mr. Shannon and uses he/ him pronouns. Instead of saying “Mr. Shannon” each time you’re referring to the teacher, you’d say he/ him instead. Or instead of saying “the bus” each time you’re talking with a friend, you would use a subject pronoun such as “it” as a replacement.

 

How do we know which pronouns to use when referring to others?

Before answering that question, it’s important to understand that we can not identify if someone is male, female, or neither male nor female (non-binary) based on how they may look or present on the outside, or based on their anatomy. This is because gender is not the same as anatomy. Anatomy refers to what body parts we have, gender refers to how we identify ourselves regardless of our anatomy. That’s because self-identity is personal, and not based on religion, culture, or anatomy. Rather, it’s based on how we feel about ourselves.

Since we can’t look at someone and automatically tell what their gender is or how they identify themselves, a best practice is to use gender-neutral pronouns if we’re unsure what to use, or for someone who is non-binary. This avoids mislabeling and misgendering and helps create an environment where people feel comfortable and welcome. Common gender-neutral pronouns are they/ them/ theirs. A few other gender-neutral pronouns are ze/ hir/ hirs, ver /vis/ vers, and te/ tem/ ter. We would use these just the way we use she/ her/ hers, or he/ him/ his pronouns. “They left their book.” “Ze is not feeling well today and needs to go home.” “I borrowed the notes from them.”

 

What happens if you use the wrong pronoun(s)? 

Simply correct yourself! People can be forgiving and allow room for grace when they see that you’re trying. Practice makes progress and the more we practice the better we will get. No matter what our personal beliefs are, or our own perspectives on what someone’s identity might be, using their proper pronouns is just as important as using their proper name.

Addressing others appropriately based on how they want to be addressed, not based on how we want to address them or how we believe they should be addressed, helps to create a sense of belonging, safety, community, and connection, and sends the message that they matter.

Connect with TaskHuman Coach Reita Johnston to better understand pronouns and learn how to incorporate inclusive language in your personal and professional life.

 

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