intermediate pronoun studies: multiple pronouns

figure with a yellow jacket, purple hair, and glasses pointing at a blackboard that says “pronoun studies: question time!”

Question one: how well do I know this person?

It’s important to consider how well you know the person you’re talking about, because that is a factor in how/whether you should even try to have a conversation with them about pronouns. In some cases, there’s no need — and it can put people uncomfortably on the spot. In other cases, having a heart-to-heart is exactly the right idea.

Near-strangers

If you don’t know someone very well , that’s going to make this honestly a bit easier. Say you’re in a big zoom meeting, and there’s a bunch of new people there, and you might or might not see any of them again. If “Venus” (example person, completely fictional) has she/they in their zoom name, what do you do?

Vague acquaintances or distant colleagues

If, say, you and Venus were in the same zoom meeting because you’re in the same volunteer group, and you’ll probably run into her at future zoom meetings because they’re monthly, you can start to do things like pay attention to what pronouns other people are using for Venus. You don’t necessarily have to change what you’re doing, or ask Venus directly about it, just turn your pronoun radar on. If, after three months of meetings, you notice that people from Venus’s team are all using they, you might consider switching. Pay particular attention to people who are closer than you to the person you’re talking about — Venus’s friend or teammate probably has a better idea of their pronoun preferences.

Chummy acquaintances or closer colleagues

Maybe, after some months of this, there’s some team reshuffling, and you and Venus end up on the same team. You find yourself having weekly chats with Venus, and you’re working more closely with them day to day. This is the minimum level of closeness at which I would say it’s possibly appropriate to actually ask Venus about her pronouns. Some strong suggestions:

  • ask in private, not in front of people. Do not put Venus on the spot at the huge monthly meeting about this!
  • don’t make it weird. Do not ask Venus about their gender or transness or anything — none of your business! Ask what you actually need to know: do they have any particular preferences about pronouns beyond what’s listed in their zoom handle?
  • keep this casual, don’t ominously pull them aside or formally invite them to a special zoom meeting about it or something.
  • keep it short. This can be a four-message conversation on slack or whatever, and you can fold it into a normal work-related chat.
  • ask if you can ask. Before actually bugging them about this, do a quick check-in: “Hey can I ask you a quick question about your pronouns?” Be willing to take a ‘no’ on this.

Pretty good friends!

If you are pretty good friends with Venus, it’s absolutely within bounds to ask — but as above, it’s on you not to make it weird. Some things you might ask:

  • Are there any specific settings where you want me to use she over they, or vice versa? Are there any times when I should absolutely avoid one or the other?
  • Do you feel differently when different people use she or they for you?
  • What are some times when someone used a pronoun and it made you really happy? Has there ever been a time where someone used a pronoun about you and it really upset you?
  • If someone messes up or uses a pronoun about you in a way I haven’t heard before, is there anything you want me to do about it? What pronoun use would you want me to correct someone about?
  • this is not a conversation about gender or transness. She’ll bring that up if she wants to talk about it with you, but you don’t need to bug her about it.
  • don’t be pushy about it. As above, I suggest you ask if it’s okay to ask about this topic before getting into it, and be willing to take a ‘no’ for an answer.
  • don’t make it weird. Approach the conversation with neutral curiosity, as a way of bonding with your friend and learning more about each other. Don’t treat Venus as an oddity, don’t vent to them about stuff you find difficult or confusing about pronouns or any related topics.

Your best friend, your lover, your silly rabbit

If someone you’re really close with uses multiple pronoun sets, you can probably have a really frank conversation about what they want out of that. I don’t really have strong advice or scripts, because if you’re that close you hopefully already have a good rapport. I have a few things you might consider watching out for, though:

  • sometimes a pronoun is okay in jokes, but not in seriousness. Pay attention to how your new beautiful partner Venus reacts to she when they’re being silly and campy versus when they’re in a deep philosophical conversation.
  • sometimes we want variety. Venus might actively want (and may ask!) for you to switch it up — if you end up using they all the time, she might ask you to throw in a little more she for example.
  • parents are a weird case. Don’t necessarily expect that Venus will want you to act the same with her parents as with your close mutual friends that you met while falling in love (slow-burn, friends to lovers, office AU, 150K). A lot of people have slightly different preferences for immediate family (parents, children, siblings) than for friends they have made as adults. If you’re lucky enough to meet Venus’s parents, probably ask them ahead of time what pronouns you should use, and what pronouns the parents are likely to use.
  • be aware of closets. If you are Venus’s closest confidant, you might be privy to more private information about her whole gender deal than anyone else. If Venus is using she/they because they’re trying out a nonbinary identity, for example, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to go public with it just yet.

Question two: does this person have strong preferences about how these pronouns are used?

This is something we talked about in the last section, but I want to give you another way of thinking about multiple pronoun sets. Regardless of their relationships with any individual speakers, multiple-pronoun-users range widely on how strongly they feel about pronouns. I’m going to run through the various options I’ve seen from different people, just to give you an idea of what to expect.

“I really don’t have a preference between these.”

Some people really mean ‘any pronouns’ when they say any pronouns. For those people, they often approach the matter with a sense of curiosity and linguistic descriptivism — when they express no preference, they’re often still paying some attention to what pronoun you use, and in what circumstance. But often it’s more “hmm, I wonder how people are going to gender me today” and less “boy I hope people gender me in a certain way today.”

“I feel slightly differently about when cis people use that pronoun.”

This is something that I see more with trans and nonbinary people, rather than “not really trans but not exactly cis” or cis people, but of course none of my generalizations are universal. When someone has this kind of preference, there are many reasons for it! For example, I myself really only accept they from cis people, but I will accept a gay she (or a very butch dyke he) from a fellow trans gay if they’re being chill and I’m friendly with them. I will usually not accept a gay she from a cis gay, because, like, I don’t know, I just don’t trust that any cis person really approaches pronouns the way I approach pronouns. I don’t want to have to worry about whether some random cis person secretly thinks I’m a man or whatever.

“I list both because it’s just easier for other people, but I really prefer one of these over the other one.”

This is often an opinion held where a multiple-pronoun-user lists two or more sets of pronouns, but one set of pronouns is what they actually prefer, and the other set is what they’re willing to tolerate if necessary. I tend to see this working a couple ways.

“I list both because I’m ideologically really invested in singular ‘they,’ but I don’t really want to have conversations with my boss about it.”

This is a sentiment I’ve seen a few times, often from people who are sort of in positions of ‘gender nonconforming and some kind of queer but my worksona is cishet because I’m 60 g.d. years old and I cannot deal with this stuff, I just want to chill.’ Please be aware: I love these people, I support them putting their pronouns in their email signature at work. I use they for these people whenever I think I can get away with it (with permission).

“I list multiple sets because I don’t want to be mistaken for (cis, binary, straight, etc.)”

This is what the kids call A Big Mood. Sometimes your gender is “none gender with left girl” and you don’t exactly want people to be assuming based on your face and pronouns that you’re a straight cis woman, but you also don’t exactly want them filtering you into the Lad Groupchat or whatever. Sometimes your gender is just ‘lesbian, no further details.’ This doesn’t necessarily mean that either set of pronouns is more or less appropriate, just that perhaps Venus wants you to select whichever pronoun will be the most obviously gay in any given context.

Question three: how might the setting influence which pronoun I use?

There are many ways that context can influence when to use what pronoun. The star of our show, Venus (she/they), may have different opinions about what pronoun you should use depending on who you’re talking to, where, and why. This is, again, a non-exhaustive list, but here are some contexts worth considering!

Don’t Fucking Out People

If your wonderful friend Venus is trans, their pronouns might be reflective of what to use in closeted situations and what to use in safe situations. For the sake of this example let’s say that Venus is AFAB and nonbinary, and really prefers they, but they use she when at work or with their parents. Their boss is pretty conservative and posts about SJWs and shit, and their mom thinks that antifa supersoldiers are poisoning the frogs gay, or something. You don’t know, and it might be none of your business!

  1. they will tell you, or
  2. there will be Clues

Sometimes you just gotta go with whatever’s legible

If someone uses multiple sets of pronouns, you may sometimes have to adapt simply for the sake of getting through a conversation without friction. If you’ve taken Venus to Denny’s for some godawful 2am brunch foods, for example, and the server asks, “Will your friend need a drinks menu?” while Venus is in the bathroom.

Please use the gay ones when we are in gay world

Returning to the world where Venus’s gender is “just, like, a huge lesbian.” If you are out on an… outing, shall we say, with Venus at one of the three remaining dyke bars on this miserable planet, and you don’t know if this is a date, but maybe you want it to be, and Venus is wearing such a good outfit, and you are trying to be all butch and order drinks for the both of you, you might intentionally pronoun them with whatever pronoun, like, feels the most cozy and queer and affectionate. This might be they if Venus has femmed up a bunch for the date, might be she if she’s in big ol’ stompy boots and is rocking a little mustache. Obviously this is going to depend a lot on the setting, and how well you know the person, and who else is there, and how old-fashioned the bartender is, and such, but like… it is a real and extremely normal thing for us to use pronouns to signal “hi yes we’re here doing gay shit in a gay manner” to our comrades. Super super normal. It is, as the linguists would say, well attested.

Ah yes, my work drag

If your date with Venus was in fact a date, and perhaps went pretty well, and now the next day you’re visiting them at work, you might find that Venus has a whole set of pronouns just for business. Their business pronouns. PROnouns. You know.

I’m making my professor call me ‘they’ out of spite

Love this one. Sometimes we have contrarian pronouns designed specifically to piss someone off. This is the most valid thing on earth. If you’re in Chemistry with Venus and they’re using they exclusively because the prof is a known asshole about pronouns, you should use they exclusively and excessively in front of that prof. Get everyone in on it.

Conclusion and TL;DR

There are LOTS of reasons that someone might use multiple sets of pronouns, and it may or may not be chill for you to ask for more information. You should consider:

  • how well you know this person (which will tell you whether you should ask, and how deeply to talk about it)
  • what this person’s feelings are about their pronouns (which can vary a LOT)
  • how the context affects which pronoun is most appropriate (or actively welcomed)
  • a VERY SHORT primer that is aimed at how to do the absolute minimum when you use pronouns about anyone!
  • pronouns 101 is an introductory guide on how to start using new pronouns for someone
  • pronouns 102 is about what to do if you’ve been trying for a while, but are still really struggling
  • a very short post on why it’s not okay to pressure someone to share their pronouns
  • a post on what to do if YOU want to try new pronouns, but aren’t sure you’re trans

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Kirby Conrod

Kirby Conrod

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.