ASK A LINGUIST ABOUT… PRONOUNS!

For International Pronouns Day on October 21st, 2020, I joined with Nathan Dors from UW IT, who’s been working on incorporating pronouns in UW’s internal ID system, which is used by students, staff, and faculty in academic and professional settings. We held a joint “Ask Me Anything” session, which was attended by UW students, staff, faculty, and other guests.

This post is a summary of the questions we discussed, which I’m really belatedly writing up for two reasons: 1) I want to share the cute slides I made on twitter, but that means I also want the text to be available easily somewhere, and 2) the questions asked by attendees made for a really great “Pronouns FAQ” — these are all questions that I get asked a lot, so I want to make it easier to share the answers! What’s below is in very quick bullet-point format, so it’s quick and easy to read. If you want to know more, feel free to send me questions on twitter — I’m answering detailed questions as blog posts!

What is a pronoun?

Nathan asked this as a sort of joke but I think it’s important to answer for real!

  • Part of speech that replaces a noun phrase, so we don’t have to say names over and over again

How do we follow ‘the rules’ in formal writing when we want to be conscious about gender pronouns?

What should we do if we’re in a profession that requires formal writing, and good pronoun practices conflict with style guides?

  • APA GUIDELINES SAY THEY IS OKAY

Can sharing your pronouns put pressure on those who don’t wish to disclose theirs?

If you are cisgender and think you are being supportive, you may be having the opposite effect. What’s the best course to take? Share or not?

  • Offer your own pronouns, but don’t require others to share theirs

What do you do if pronouns are not offered?

How do you refer to someone who hasn’t yet shared their pronouns? Is there an acceptable way to inquire?

  • Avoid pronouns — use the person’s name instead

Is “guys” gender-specific or has it evolved to gender-neutral?

What about “guys?” It’s such a ubiquitous term. Even Senator Harris used it recently

  • In some dialects, “you guys” is sort of a pronoun

What should I do in languages like French or Spanish, where all the nouns are gendered?

In Spanish class I learned to use the masculine plural for mixed groups, and I don’t know how to talk about nonbinary people… What are your suggestions?

  • Language teachers will sometimes teach you a ‘standard’ that doesn’t match what people are actually doing

It’s hard for me to use ‘they’ for a single, specific person. What are the linguistic reasons for this?

I often don’t even notice when I use the wrong pronoun — pronouns are harder to change in my mind than nouns and verbs. Why is this, and what can I do about it?

  • Pronouns in English are function words, like articles and conjunctions and clause markers. It means we’re less consciously aware of them, and they change slower over time.

Can cis people try out different pronouns?

You wrote a blog post recently about cis people trying out different pronouns. Why did you write that? What is that about?

  • I’ve heard from a lot of people who want to try new pronouns, but think they can’t

When might using ‘they’ be harmful or misgendering?

Are there times when using they is just as wrong/harmful as using he or she incorrectly? Is there an asymmetry of how hurtful it is when I use the wrong pronoun?

  • Explicit misgendering is using an overtly wrong gendered word for someone

While I keep working on answering some of these questions with longer blog posts, please feel free to send me more questions! If you’d like to read more of my writing about pronouns, you might like my other posts on medium!

This work is supported by my ko-fi tips. You can also follow me on twitter