Intermediate Pronoun Studies: pronouns conflicting with presentation

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.

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

Dear Kirby,

The new Pronouns blog is terrific, and I’ve already sent it to several people.

One comment on Pronouns 102, since you specifically say “Let me know!” for “Why do you keep messing up?”: I think a real category is “the person’s name/physical presentation doesn’t match traditional interpretations of their new pronoun, and it’s confusing.”

I have a friend who has always presented as very masculine, and has a traditionally male name, and now uses “they/them” pronouns, while continuing to present as masculine and keeping their male name. It takes a lot more effort to get it right than for people who have either changed to a different presentation, or whose appearance/name have always been either androgynous or more aligned with the new pronoun.

Anecdotally, I think this is a real category for confusion.

Thank you for the kind words! To sum up this question as I understand it: what do I do if someone’s presentation and pronouns don’t seem to me to ‘match,’ and how can I get better at gendering that person correctly?

I have a two-part answer: 1.) repetition and reinforcement, and 2.) work on shifting your mental paradigm.

My advice is split into what’s going to help you stop misgendering this specific person — short-term, mostly-linguistic practice you can undertake without having to totally rewire your brain; and once you have that mastered, advice for how to stop having this difficulty in the future (which does involve a bit of brain-rewiring, but it’s totally possible!)

First part: Repetition and reinforcement

In order to get your brain used to associating specific pronouns with a specific person, you are going to need to practice much more intentionally. The harder you find it to intuitively use the right pronouns for your friend, the more you need to practice.

Because you’re friends, I assume their feelings matter to you! I assume that you are working with the understanding that, since they asked you to use they/them and did not provide other options, they’re probably going to have some hurt feelings if you use other pronouns besides those. So your goal here is to really work to associate this friend (can I call them Geoff? I’m going to call them Geoff) with they/them pronouns. For the sake of example, and based on the info you shared, I imagine that much of the problem comes from you accidentally calling Geoff “he,” and you’re asking for advice on how to stop yourself from doing that, too.

If you’ve tried all the strategies in my 101 and 102 posts (e.g. story-writing, loving gossip sessions, practicing with mutual friends) and are still struggling, one thing you might try is taking away pronouns completely for a little while — say, a week or two, or however long it takes to get rid of your instinct to use “he” automatically. One thing I want you to notice: I’m putting “he” in quotes every single time I write it in this post. That’s one way to force yourself to pay attention!

Pronoun avoidance can be a sort of ‘detox’ for your brain — and avoiding pronouns is just as hard as using an unintuitive (to you) pronoun for someone. You may find yourself in some tricky situations, linguistically — like, there’s no reflexive if you’re avoiding pronouns altogether, so if you wanted to say “Geoff likes __self,” you’re going to have to rephrase that sentence or do something weird. I’ve heard people use (short) names as almost a neopronoun, so you’d end up saying something like “Geoff likes Geoff’s self,” which when said aloud kind of sounds like jefself is a new pronoun you’re trying out.

Avoiding pronouns is not, however, a permanent solution! Do not stop there, especially because you’ve mentioned that Geoff is sort of unique in your social world as someone whose gender/pronouns combo doesn’t parse as easily to you. The point of the ‘pronoun detox’ phase is to really strictly forbid yourself from resorting to “he,” and get used to putting in the greater cognitive effort towards, above all else, Not Misgendering Your Friend.

I recommend also getting an accountability-buddy to help you with this; if someone is around a lot, they can help keep track of how often you slip and use the wrong pronoun (since you yourself might not notice). If, after a week or two, you can comfortably get through a conversation without misgendering Geoff, that’s the point to start adding the they back in. You can go back to the practice strategies from 101/102 now, and they’re likelier to stick this time! Why? Because, if your detox was long enough and effective enough, your default is now no pronoun rather than a wrong or hurtful pronoun. Good job, you’re expanding your linguistic toolkit! This is a massive accomplishment, and lays the groundwork for your next couple months of acclimating to “Geoff likes themself.”

Don’t move on to the next step until you’ve gone at least two weeks without misgendering Geoff at all. Ideally, wait until you’ve been comfortably they-ing them for a couple weeks, if you can.

Second part: shift your mental paradigm of gender and pronouns in general

In order to stop having to do the above (tiring and slow) process every time you meet someone who’s gender non-conforming, or who switches things up while you know them, you’re going to have to rethink what pronouns actually are and what you think you know about other peoples’ gender. This part is harder, but now that you’ve gotten past the initial steep learning curve, the main goal is to expand what you did for Geoff to, like, everyone.

Do I mean stop using pronouns for everyone on earth? No, that would be difficult and require a much more significant grammar-rewrite than is really necessary. However, you should practice pronoun-avoidance about strangers and new people you meet — especially if they look cis and gender-conforming to you. I’ll repeat that! You should practice not using pronouns about random people you meet, even if their appearance seems to you to be quite clearly in one camp or the other. This is going to include little old grannies at the grocery store and big beardy delivery workers and children and pets. Everyone new you meet!

So when do you get to pick a pronoun for someone new? When you hear someone else use one who is likely to know what pronouns are correct! Is this likely to happen with the random grocery store grannies or big beardy delivery drivers? No, because mostly other people aren’t talking to you about those people, or if they do, they’re also probably strangers. If, however, you’re chatting with a stranger at a party and their friend introduces the stranger to you as “This is Rose, she works in HR!” then that’s a safe go-ahead. You now can file away the info about this new person as Rose, she/her in your mind.

The ultimate goal of this is to train yourself out of the belief that names or appearances tell you a person’s pronouns. They don’t! From a purely descriptive linguistics perspective, English third person pronouns act much more like honorific pronouns than a lot of people seem to be aware of.

What does that mean? Here’s a story: my friend Andrew* learned German entirely from textbooks, then promptly moved to Germany and got a cute German boyfriend. Good for Andrew! His German was… let’s say passable enough to get a boyfriend, but the tricky part came when it was time for Andrew to meet the boyfriend’s parents. Many second-language learners of German, Spanish, French, etc. have stories like this — do you call your new boyfriend’s parents du or Sie? (Or tu/Usted, or tu/Vous, etc…) If you guess wrong, it’s really rude, right? But how do you guess correctly? It’s complicated:

flowchart of when to use du or Sie in German; PDF version available https://bibliobrary.net/2010/01/04/when-to-use-du-and-sie
flowchart of when to use du or Sie in German; PDF version available https://bibliobrary.net/2010/01/04/when-to-use-du-and-sie
Source: When to use du and Sie

You can’t know when to use du with your boyfriend’s mom just based off of a quick guess, but many introductory language textbooks oversimplify. Andrew used Sie with his boyfriend’s mom, because she’s older and he wanted to be respectful — wrong guess! This ended up making the mom feel like Andrew was being overly cold and unfriendly.

Third person pronouns like he, she, they, and others work a lot more like du and Sie than we’re aware of! Our calculations are based on complicated social information. Your trouble with Geoff is not because of Geoff’s name or presentation, your difficulty using the right pronouns with Geoff are because you’re used to having a pretty clear-cut idea of what pronouns go with what names. But there are many, many names (like Chris, Hayden, Kirby, Alex, Taylor…) that are given to both male and female babies, and belong to adults of various genders. If you’re like me, you can probably think of three Taylors who have three different genders and use completely different pronouns! (I can think of three Taylors in my field to get pronoun bingo, even!) So it’s clear that names themselves don’t have inherent gender! Likewise, I have to politely assume that you don’t use he when your new friend Rose dresses a little more butch at work , or when your hypothetical aunt Misty gives up bleaching the hair on her upper lip. Presentation is extremely flexible, day to day, including things like clothes, facial/body hair, makeup, even whether someone is dressed such that they have noticeable breasts. So that can’t be the sole predictor of pronouns, either!

Basically, the issue here is that you have to spend some time unlearning the myth that pronouns are guessable by any single cue. Name, presentation, assigned sex at birth, clothing, facial hair — none of these cues will ever be reliable enough to allow you to guess correctly 100% of the time. So you’ve got to stop guessing, and wait to find out through social means. Notice on the du/Sie flowchart above, there’s an option for “oops, you don’t have enough social information to guess! Avoid this kind of pronoun until you know more!” It’s kind of like that.

This is Step Two because it takes a long time to unlearn and learn a new way of thinking about gender and pronouns like this. It took me about five years of intense, intentional thought to get to the point where I can adapt to pretty much any combination of name/appearance/pronouns, and that’s with me being very much transgendering my own self throughout the whole duration. You don’t have to figure this out overnight, but slowly chipping away at it will mean that future relationships you forge will be happier, more secure, and you’ll be more ready for changes and unexpected combinations. It will feel difficult for a while, but after that it gets so much easier.

tl;dr

A reader wrote in asking: what do I do if I’m having a hard time using the right pronouns for my friend, when those pronouns don’t seem to me to match my friend’s name or appearance?

My answer: you gotta practice more! You can start with a ‘pronoun detox’ to train yourself out of using the wrong pronouns, then start adding the right pronouns back in. After that, you can start the long, slow journey of decoupling pronouns from names and appearance in your mind, which will make this whole deal way easier for your future self.

*All names in this blog post have been changed or invented to protect anonymity for all parties. Except my name, that one’s real.

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

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.