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.
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.
Here’s the Schoolhouse Rock version.
Excluding neopronouns, here are all the pronouns in current use in most varieties of spoken English:
- they/them/their/theirs/themselves (or themself)
Depending on what you count as a “word,” that’s only thirty words in this entire category of words! Each pronoun set has several forms depending on what grammatical role it’s playing in the sentence. This is really different than the English category of nouns, which is a category of thousands and thousands of words.
When we refer to someone’s pronouns (or “preferred pronouns” — a term many trans people don’t like) in English, we’re generally talking about third person singular pronouns, which are the only pronouns to show any indication of gender in English. The third person singular pronouns most commonly used by people are bolded above — note that they can either be singular (meaning just one person) or plural (meaning more than one person) in English.
If you’re reading this article, it’s probably because you used to use one of the bolded pronoun sets above (like he) for someone, and they’ve asked you to use a different set (like they). Congratulations! What follows is intended to help you do this with the least amount of fuss possible.
 Other pronouns exist in some but not most/all varieties of English, including lots of second person plurals and other forms of the reflexives.
 This form doesn’t really exist for, um, linguistics reasons.
 If you ever want to see linguists get into a fight, ask them this on twitter.
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 trust you and want you to be a part of their life
- 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
A lot of the time, people don’t deploy their new pronouns all at once. They start with a few trusted people, and slowly expand the circle outwards. If you’re in that inner circle, congratulations, this is a wonderful sign of a close and trusting relationship! Your loved one is putting themself in a vulnerable position, and it’s a good sign that they’re asking you to be a part of their authentic life this way. Being asked to use new pronouns for a close friend or loved one is an indication that they trust you will not reject or argue with them, especially while they may be still in the process of figuring this stuff out themself! If you’re in this inner circle, you should be sensitive that your response will be part of what helps them decide what to do next — if you react harshly, reject them, or refuse to make an effort, they may decide that it’s not as safe to be close with you as they thought it was… or they may feel so unsafe that they have to slide back into the closet altogether. Ideally, you’ll take some time to educate yourself (you’re already doing great by reading this!) and make an effort to make them feel welcomed and loved.
If you’re less close — if you’re coworkers, classmates, or acquaintances — this is still a wonderful sign of trust! They feel that you do know them well enough to trust that you won’t abuse or misgender them. If you’re not very close and there’s any asymmetry of power in your relationship (teacher-student, or boss-employee, or adult offspring-parent), they are definitely going to be very aware of that imbalance when they’ve asked you to use these pronouns. If you hold power over them in any way (grades, pay, access to the rest of the family) they know that they’re risking that when they make this request. Do everything in your abilities not to abuse that power. It is especially difficult, for example, for a student to correct a teacher who misgenders them when they know that the teacher may retaliate in any way.
Basically, if you’re having to learn new pronouns for someone you know, this is a good sign that they want to continue the relationship! It is up to you to meet that trust and goodwill.
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?
- not necessarily… but maybe!
- 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.
In general, make it clear that you’re open to hearing more, but don’t assume that you know what’s going on with someone’s gender based on their pronouns alone. If this person wants to share more with you, they will feel safer doing so if you don’t try to press them for the ‘juicy details.’ It’s a pretty personal question!
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:
Step 1: Practice by yourself. If you start on your own, no one can hear you mess up, and you get as many repetitions as you feel you need. To practice by yourself:
- make up a few short sentences using the person’s new pronouns (and name) and repeat them to yourself a few times, first in writing and then out loud to yourself.
- 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!”
Step 2: Practice with close friends or a few others. Starting with close friends means that you’re not ‘spreading around’ the wrong pronouns if you make a mistake, and a good friend will want to help you improve. To practice with close friends:
- Whenever you think about the person, say something nice about them to the person you’re with (using the correct name/pronouns, of course!).
- 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!”
Step 3: Practice in more open situations IF YOU HAVE PERMISSION. If your friend is still in the closet, do not do this step without explicitly getting permission! If you do have permission, or if the person made it clear that they want you to use their new pronouns all the time, try these:
- get together with a few friends and have a longer conversation where you share things you like about the person, or share fun stories about them. This is great if you have several mutual friends!
- 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.
We linguists don’t actually have a lot of research (yet!!) on how long it takes individual speakers to learn new pronouns for individual people, so I can only tell you based on my personal experience: it takes anywhere from a week (if you’re old hat at this or VERY cognitively flexible for some reason) to a couple months. If it’s been two months and you’re still consistently messing up, or having brain ‘hiccups,’ you might want to read the pronouns 102 post for some more ideas on how to level up your practice.
You might also want to do some self-reflection on why this is hard, and see if you can unstick your mental block. Is it difficult because you think this person is “really” a different gender than the pronouns they’re asking for? Then you need to take some time and practice mentally decoupling pronouns and gender — this is a big paradigm shift, and does take a while! Be honest and up-front that you’re working on it, and don’t be upset if the person takes the ‘wait and see’ approach while you’re still working it out.
Is it difficult because others around you are using the wrong pronouns? If the person is using these new pronouns in all the settings, then you can help them out by correcting others! You’re doing your friend and yourself a favor!
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.
How to recognize the mistake:
- actually the hardest part, because your brain probably sort of ‘erases’ pronouns and other function words from your awareness when you talk.
- 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!
How to acknowledge the mistake:
- A very short apology and try that sentence or phrase again. Apologize briefly but sincerely. Don’t make a big weird deal about it, but do not let it pass without an apology and a fix!
- “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:
- If someone asked you to use new pronouns for them, that’s a good sign and you should do your best to honor their trust!
- 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!
If you’d like to read more of my writing about pronouns, you might like my other posts on medium!
- the VERY SHORT predecessor to this post that is aimed at how to do the absolute minimum when you use pronouns about anyone!
- 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