pronouns 101: introduction to your loved one’s new pronouns

Your loved one (friend? family member? coworker whose feelings you give a shit about?) has asked you to use different pronouns than the ones you’ve been previously using! This post is intended as a very introductory post on how to get started — if you need help beyond just getting started, check out pronouns 102, which is aimed at trouble-shooting if you’ve been trying for a while but are just struggling to get it right.

figure with a yellow jacket, purple hair, and glasses pointing at a blackboard that says “welcome to pronouns 101”

Before we get started: what are pronouns?

Pronouns are words used to stand in for a whole noun phrase or proper name, because it gets really tiring to say someone’s name over and over again when you’re talking about the same person for a while.

  • you/you/your/yours/yourself
  • he/him/his/his/himself
  • she/her/hers/hers/herself
  • they/them/their/theirs/themselves (or themself)
  • it/it/its/[2]/itself

First thing’s first: why did your loved one ask you to use different pronouns?

People sometimes change pronouns! Everyone has different reasons for why they change pronouns, and their internal motivation isn’t really the point of this post. Instead, let’s focus on why they’ve asked you in particular to be part of this. Good news! The reasons are, generally:

  • because they want their relationship with you to be one based on mutual respect of each other’s true self
  • because this is an important aspect of their identity and self-expression

Do I really have to use these new pronouns?

If you feel like this sounds confusing or difficult, you may be asking whether this effort is really necessary on your part. Here’s the short answer:

  • misgendering (by using the wrong name or pronouns, or any other way) really hurts. It feels like a papercut. Pronouns are a very high-frequency part of language, so those papercuts accumulate fast.
  • if you don’t care that you’re hurting them, why are you in any kind of relationship with this person?
  • if you’re in a relationship with a power imbalance where they can’t safely just leave, then you’ve essentially trapped them in papercut hell, which makes you an asshole. You don’t have to finish reading the rest of this post, because your values are not really in alignment with what we’re doing here. Click this link, instead.

Do new pronouns mean they’re transgender?

A lot of the resources you’ll find when searching about pronoun preferences will talk about transgender identities. That’s one of the reasons people change their pronouns, so is this person coming out to you as trans by asking you these pronouns?

  • you should only ask them directly about this if your relationship is already appropriately close. Here’s a metric: would it be weird if you held their hand? Yes? Then you’re not close enough to ask. If holding hands wouldn’t be weird, then you’re close enough to ask.
  • if it’s not weird to ask, here’s a possible way to phrase it: “Is there anything else about your name or gender you’d like to share with me?”
  • Don’t ask them about ANY aspect of biomedical transition, even if you did ask about their gender identity. Either they’ll volunteer the information, or it’s none of your business.

Okay, I’m willing to try the new pronouns… but I don’t know where to start!

I made this header bigger because it’s the most important part. Here’s how you start using new pronouns for someone:

  • start paying close attention to whether you use pronouns in your stream of thought when you think about people. If so, do the above in your mind, as well.
  • try this every day for a week! You can go longer — basically until you stop getting a ‘brain hiccup’ feeling when you do this exercise.
  • Example: My friend Shay used to use “they” but now is using “he.” I like to make my example sentences compliments, it cheers me up! So I can practice writing or saying to myself: “Shay is such a good writer, his imagery is really vivid, and I love how he’s really invested in each character’s motivations. I hope he writes a novel!”
  • Whenever the person naturally comes up in conversation, say something nice about them or share a nice anecdote.
  • Example: my spouse also knows Shay, so when I see him post on social media, I tell my spouse, “Hey, did you see Shay’s post? He’s so funny!”
  • loving gossip sesh (honestly)
  • Example: I have some mutual friends on social media with Shay, so I like to talk to them about him where I know he can see — I’ll share his post and add “omg he’s so funny!” or the like.

This sounds hard… How long do I have to practice?

It is not unusual for speakers of English to find it difficult to switch pronouns about a person, because we (English-speakers) don’t have that many pronouns, historically, and we tend not to introduce new ones quite as often as we introduce, say, nouns.

What should I do if I mess up?

Some mistakes are very normal — but as I said, misgendering hurts! Ideally, you should use the practice plan above to try and get those mistakes out of your system so that your friend doesn’t have to hear them. If you do mess up, it’s important to recognize and acknowledge the mistake! Letting a mistake pass by unremarked-upon is counterproductive, and reinforces the wrong pronouns in your brain, meaning it’s possible to ‘backslide’ after a few mistakes.

  • make an intentional effort to pay attention to the pronouns you use when talking about anyone, not just this one person
  • start making that same effort to pay conscious attention to the pronouns that other people use when talking about anyone!
  • “And when they were — oops, I’m so sorry, I meant he was writing a short story…”

In conclusion! / tl;dr

Here’s the “too long, didn’t read” version:

  • The best way to get better at it is to actually practice. Repetition and reinforcement are key!
  • If you mess up, apologize and correct yourself briefly and keep practicing on your own!
  • 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

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.