intermediate pronoun studies: multiple pronouns

After posting Pronouns 101 and Pronouns 102, I’ve started receiving some questions from readers! I will happily answer these anonymously — you can send your own questions to me via my twitter. This is my second reader question; the first one I answered in a previous post.

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

From Gloria Mellesmoen on Twitter:

This is a question I’ve gotten from a few people over the years, basically summed up as: WHAT do I do when someone lists multiple sets of pronouns?

My very short answer: it depends on the person, and your relationship with them, and the context. But that’s not very informative, is it?

The first thing I’ll say is that I know a LOT multiple-pronoun-users, and they’re an extremely heterogenous class of people. Many of these people identify as cis, but just as many of them are trans. A good number don’t like to describe themselves as either cis or trans, which is a whole other binary we need to try and stop imposing on people. Some of them are doing what you might think of as transitioning (biomedically, socially, or otherwise) and some of them are working up to it, and some of them did so years ago, and some of them never plan to. Some of them have strong opinions about who can use which pronoun when, and some of them really don’t care at all.

The very diverse membership suggests that we’re not actually talking about an inherent or logical ‘category’ of people; instead, it might help to think of “multiple-pronoun-user” as a behavior that people do while occupying many different identities or social relational positions.

Basically: the fact that someone uses multiple pronouns tells you almost nothing about them other than, well, the pronouns thing. The order that they share pronouns also tells you very little, because people have very different reasons for listing them in any given order.

So that’s, like, not super helpful, as advice goes. I can’t know anything about someone just from the fact that they list multiple pronouns, so I can’t give you good advice on what particular desires and needs the person might have. However, I can give you some social and linguistic questions to ask (yourself, and the person you’re talking about) to help guide your decision-making a little bit.

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?

Pick one and use it. Use whichever one will be easiest for you. If you feel like you’re least likely to slip up or stumble with she for Venus, then just use she (and her, hers, herself) for Venus. Very simple! Since you’re only likely to need these pronouns in this specific meeting, and not everyone here knows each other, pick any pronoun that’s going to be the least confusing and don’t complicate things by trying to switch it up. If you progress along from “near strangers” to a closer relationship, maybe this will change, but for now this is just fine! I promise that our fictional friend Venus would not have listed she/they if she wasn’t at least willing to tolerate being she’d by a zoom stranger.

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?

And, as above, some guidelines to keep you from making Venus hate your guts and/or stop you from microaggressing them:

  • 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.

You should also, as a good friend, be someone Venus (and your other friends!) can come to if they have pronoun updates — sometimes (but not always!) multiple-pronoun users will go from one set to another. Don’t bug your friends about this, but try to be a good sounding board if they do want to try something new.

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.

Note that you might not be close enough to actually be privy to these opinions — the previous section is a guideline about whether you can even politely initiate this conversation. If you’re not super close, don’t try to pry and figure out if your friend holds one of these views privately. They’ll tell you if they want you to know!

“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.”

If people really truly express no preference, this is a cool opportunity for you as a speaker to just pay attention and keep track of what pronouns feel natural, and ask yourself why. Do you feel like you really what you really want to do is use they for Venus only when talking to someone who’s using she for them? Do you feel pulled to try and alternate between she and they every other sentence? Do you feel like just sticking to they is the best, because you wanted more practice with singular they anyways? That’s all fascinating, and you could approach your own tendencies and behaviors with a neutral curiosity as well.

“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.

Your wonderful friend Venus might feel similarly — she might be fine with other trans people using they for her, but when a cis person does it it might feel like it’s misgendering or degendering her. If you’re close enough to have this conversation, and you’re cis, do not get weird and defensive about this. Just take the hint — that Venus would prefer you, her only cis friend, please call her she — and leave it!

“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.

Possibility one: Venus is transfemme nonbinary, but if they don’t list she/they people tend to make incorrect assumptions. They really prefer they, but listing only they gets them misgendered even more (as he, which they’re absolutely not okay with). The she is there to steer people away from that.

Possibility two: Venus is nonbinary and AFAB, and they list she/they because everyone at work just kind of she’s them anyways, and they don’t really care enough to correct people. They would really prefer they, but the she is there essentially as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for the fact that people just she them constantly and they don’t want to have a fight about it every damn time.

Possibility three: Venus is a trans woman, but as is the case for many trans women, her experience of being gendered by others is kind of inherently nonbinary anyways. She prefers she but they is a compromise that she doesn’t really mind.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of possibilities, of course, but they’re rough approximations of the most common ones I’ve seen.

“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).

In cases like this, if you’re close enough to have a conversation, I think it’s important to remember that pronouns aren’t gender (necessarily). Do not bug your favorite professor, Venus, who lists she/they in their email signature, about whether they’re actually really agender. Leave it! None of your business! However, you can casually ask, “Hey, I notice you list two pronouns on the syllabus — do you have any particular preference between those?” And if Venus has indeed listed her she/they on the syllabus for Postmodernism And Transformative Works or whatever, they will probably be happy to tell you.

“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.

Which leads me to my next big section… 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!

In general, if pronouns are a matter of safety, you have two ways of finding out:

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

Examples of Clues include: their close friends suddenly start using she when Venus’s mom is on speakerphone; they have one set of pronouns on their Twitter where they pal around with fandom friends but a different set on their Facebook where all their aunts and uncles follow them; they introduced themself with one set of pronouns in person but list a different set in writing.

If Venus is your acquaintance, or your student, or something, you don’t know them well enough to press them about this. If you are a trusted friend or confidant, you can ask: “hey, are there any times when I should use one set of pronouns or another?” You also have the option of avoiding pronouns if you’re not sure.

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.

If you use they, sometimes the server doesn’t actually have a legible concept of singular they, and keep in mind it’s 2am and it’s freaking Denny’s. The server may have no idea what a nonbinary person is, and may not care. I have sometimes used they in similar circumstances and the server has been like, “wait do you have more friends? Do you need a bigger table?”

Obviously if Venus used they and no other pronouns, this would be a bigger pain in the butt for both me and and the server. But since Venus uses she as well, I would just correct to use she. Why? Conversation lubricant, make the gears run easy. This is one of the blessed things about multiple-pronoun-users, is that you have more options for how to just communicate with less fuss. Thanks Venus for your linguistic blessings upon us in this 2am Denny’s.

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.

Anyways if you show up at the gay starbucks and there’s someone you don’t know on register, you might ask if Venus is there, and they might say “Oh yeah, she’s out back.” And if Venus has wanted to use they most of the time, that doesn’t always mean that their coworker she-ing them is (necessarily) misgendering — a lot of people just sort of pick a set of pronouns to use at work to keep things simple. This is sort of an extended version of the “keep it legible” principle: people often have a sort of simplified version of themselves that they take to work, including clothes, hobbies, makeup, names, etc. Don’t worry about it! Now that you and Venus are dating, maybe you can ask them about it later.

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)

In general, if someone lists multiple pronouns, that means it’s okay for you to use any of the pronouns in that set. As you get to know a person better, you’ll learn more about when to use which ones.

If you’d like to read more of my writing about pronouns, you might like my other posts on medium!

  • 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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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.