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
  • You, I, we, us, y’all, thou, he, she, it, they, xe, hir, fae
  • 3rd person pronouns are about someone besides the speaker and listener: She, he, they, xe, fae, and more

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
  • Singular they is already a part of the language
  • Generic uses are accepted by almost all style guides now: “A perfect student always turns in their (his*) homework”
  • Just do it! Direct your bosses to the APA styleguide if they give you grief about it

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
  • Don’t pester someone if they don’t volunteer their pronouns
  • If you have to ask, ask in private
  • If you ask everyone, make sure you use them correctly
  • Many people aren’t ready to share, or don’t know for sure yet. Be kind!
  • My blog post about this: The problem with pronoun practices

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
  • If you use singular they when you’re unsure, make sure you’re not just doing this to gender-nonconforming people
  • Follow others’ lead; wait for someone else to use a pronoun

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
  • For people whose dialects use “you guys” as the 2nd person plural, it’s usually intended to be gender neutral
  • But some people feel misgendered by this
  • If someone asks you to stop using it, stop!
  • I like y’all instead. Maybe you can use youse, or yinz

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
  • Connect and listen to nonbinary and trans speakers of the language you’re learning!
  • Spanish (elle, -x, -e) and French (iel, -.e) forms exist, and you can read more about them!
  • For any language, the best thing to do is learn and use the language that people use for themselves (regardless of whether your teacher likes it)

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.
  • Singular they might be hard for you because it is part of a language change that is still going on!
  • People can change their internal grammar as adults — but you have to practice, and pay extra careful attention
  • The best strategies are all about repetition! I have a blog post about strategies to start you off: Pronouns 101

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
  • I always tell people: yes, you can try a different pronoun… we’re not going to run out!
  • I’ve heard from people who tried something new after reading that blog post, and found that they really liked it!
  • One of the best ways to oust transphobia is to allow more people to do stuff with their gender just to see how it feels

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
  • Implicit misgendering is the inappropriate use of non-gendered words when gendered words might be more appropriate
  • Trans and gender-nonconforming people are much more subject to implicit (and explicit!) misgendering than cis people
  • How hurtful misgendering is always depends on context — if it happens once in a blue moon, it stings, but if it happens dozens of times every day, it feels devastating
  • If you’re using they as a default, make sure you’re not just doing this to trans/GNC people… and switch when asked!

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

Dr. Conrod is a linguist and scholar sort of at large. They write about transgender stuff, the linguistics of pronouns, and ways to work with your brain.