pronouns 102: how to stop messing up pronouns

Pronouns are hard! There is a reason for that (the reason is… linguistics), but the fact of the matter is, many people find it very difficult to switch pronouns for a person, or to use certain pronouns at all. This post isn’t about getting into the why, but more going about the how to get better.

figure with a yellow jacket, purple hair, and glasses pointing at a blackboard that says “welcome to pronouns 102”

The target audience for this post is anyone who finds themselves messing up someone else’s pronouns, or misgendering people on accident, but you really want to get better. If you don’t want to get better, close out of your browser and turn off your computer now! Don’t email me!

Before you can start: figure out why you’re doing this

  • I didn’t learn what ‘nonbinary’ was until I was 112 years old. This type of person is a whole new concept to me, and I really am trying to wrap my mind around it, but my brain is making it really tough. Aren’t people really male or female? My great-great-grandchild says no, and I’m trying to learn what that even means.
  • English is my fourth language. I have a hard time with he and she as it is! Your verbs are all irregular and your orthography makes no sense, and I want to go back to my sensible language where we only mark pronouns for whether someone is important or not.
  • I get the concept of nonbinary people, but my mouth doesn’t seem to have caught up with the program, and I don’t really know why. I don’t even notice I used the wrong one until my friend corrects me, and I feel so bad!
  • I totally get nonbinary people, and I can use singular they just fine for someone I know, but using it for my child seems so weird and impersonal, it just feels like a mental block I can’t get past!
  • I totally get nonbinary people, and they isn’t really the issue. It’s just that I’ve known my friend such a long time, and always knew them as she, so it’s really impossible to rewire my brain to think of them as he, even though I totally support my friend’s transition and I think his new mustache looks fantastic.
  • Other reasons? Let me know!

Why do you want to get better? Pick one from the following menu, or add your own:

  • If I mess up again my child is going to write a callout post about me on face book
  • The look on my friend’s face every time I mess up makes me feel awful
  • I don’t want people saying I’m transphobic! I’m not, and it hurts my feelings when people call me that!
  • I am seriously going to get in trouble at work if I keep messing this up

General strong advice

The advice I’m giving here is ways to give yourself an opportunity to repeat and reinforce the correct pronouns that you’re trying to learn. I recommend using at least two of these strategies, and being really attentive to how you correct your mistakes. In order to rack up more correct pronouns, every mistake should be followed by three or more corrections!

How to practice alone

  • Write a story about the person, and take care to use the correct pronouns. Writing is good because it’s slower than talking, and you can take your time and think about each word, meaning hopefully you’ll have fewer errors as you write. You also have the magical superpower of ‘editing,’ so if a mistake does somehow happen, you can fix it! It might be nice to read over your story a couple times. The story itself doesn’t strongly matter — this could be anything from a funny anecdote from real life to a modern fairy tale about the person as your protagonist. As long as you have to refer to the person a lot, you’ll get that practice.
  • Mind-compliments: when you’re thinking about the person, if you find that you thought the wrong pronoun to yourself, immediately follow it up with three (or more! but not fewer) nice things to say about them, using the correct name and pronouns.

How to practice with others

  • Collaborative story-telling! As above, tell a story about the person, taking care to get the pronouns (and name!) right every time. You can do this with friends in writing (in a google doc, maybe) or out loud. This can include fun anecdotes or just making up a kind and funny fairy tale about the person.
  • Have a love-gossip session! This is similar to story-telling, but may come up more naturally and doesn’t have to be a specific intentional exercise. Whenever it arises in conversation, spend some time with your friends sharing stuff you like about the person, and take the time to really slow down and make sure to get pronouns/names right every single time.
  • If the issue is just “this kind of pronoun in general,” not about a specific person, you can assign new pronouns to a pet or stuffed animal. This is great because pets do not care about being misgendered, because they do not know language! If you assign your beloved cat they/them, you will have a lot of opportunities to tell your friends about their wonderful cat exploits, and ideally your friends will help you remember to get their pronouns right…but it doesn’t hurt anyone if you mess up. If you don’t have a pet, you can do this with a toy or even a fictional character (say, in your D&D game).
  • A swear jar is more punitive than I prefer, but you may find that it helps you notice that you’ve misgendered someone if you have a “swear jar” and must put a dollar in any time you mess up. Use the eventual earnings to get a nice gift for the person, or donate the proceeds to a transgender person’s crowdfund!
  • Also on the more punitive side, if you can get a buddy to clicker train you in some way, this is very effective. The idea is that every time you mess up, you need to stop and correct yourself in exchange for a ‘treat’ (candy? dollar towards a gift for your loved one?) Alternatively, you can ask your buddy to do ‘aversion training’ by snapping their fingers or using a keyword every time you mess up, or taking a candy away from your designated pronouns-candy jar. The idea is to classically train you to associate the right pronouns with a reward, and the wrong pronouns with a small annoyance. Better to do this on your own terms than wait for one of your kids to do it for you, I suppose. This strategy is probably a last resort, hopefully after you’ve tried a bunch of the other strategies on here!

How to help others improve

  • model the desired behavior — meaning, use the person’s correct pronouns in front of the person who’s messing up. Ideally get other people in on this with you.
  • be polite but absolutely consistent about corrections. Correct every single time they mess up — not a big long correction, and don’t interrupt them. Wait until they finish speaking, and say a quick “actually, it’s ‘she’.” Correct others in front of them as well.
  • don’t argue about it. If you correct them and they object to the correction, ask if they still want to improve at this. If yes, then corrections are necessary. If not, then you should write them off as a lost cause and help the person they’re misgendering distance from them.
  • don’t shame or mock someone for messing up. Regardless of how bad it feels to get misgendered (or hear someone else get misgendered), this is simply counterproductive. You can express your feelings of hurt or frustration honestly and directly, but shame/mocking puts the speaker in a victim mentality and makes them less likely to want to try at all. Use I-Statements: “I feel really hurt and upset when you still use the wrong pronouns for our friend, because it makes me feel like you don’t respect their autonomy.”
  • ask what they’re doing for practice, and offer to help. If they’re not sure how to practice, talk through some potential strategies.
  • know when to cut your losses. If the person is refusing to practice, has refused to talk about how they might improve, responds badly to gentle corrections, or expresses no interest in altering their behavior, just hit da bricks! If they’re misgendering someone over whom they hold institutional power, help that person to get out of that situation first and then explore options like reporting harassment.

Ultimately, the person doing the misgendering is responsible for their own words and deeds, here. You can support them as they try to learn, but you cannot force them to change if they’re just not trying.

In conclusion / tl;dr

  • if you keep messing up someone’s pronouns, it’s on you to make an effort to practice and get better
  • you can practice on your own or with others, but you’re not going to get better if you don’t actually do something. No one can do this for you, and you probably can’t just magically ‘decide’ to stop messing up.
  • the key is repetition and reinforcement. This means you must try to use the correct pronouns as much as possible (repetition) and correct yourself every single time you mess up (reinforcement)

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 101 is the predecessor to this post, which is a more introductory guide on how to start using new pronouns for someone
  • 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.