pronouns aren’t gender; please get better at looking at birds

Kirby Conrod
6 min readMay 25, 2022

Pronouns aren’t gender. If you’ve been around the pronoun conversations for a bit, you’ve likely seen this line, but I find it’s either intuitive to you (like lightbulb-moment “oh, that explains a lot”) or you’re stuck on like, “….sure, but what does that mean?”

I will run you through a few different analogies and ways of talking about this, but I can’t make you have the lightbulb moment. It’s like those magic-eye puzzles, where explaining the knack of unfocusing your eyes is weirdly difficult to fit into words, but once you figure it out it comes quite naturally. I can reassure you that basically everyone I have met is capable of this unfocusing.

I hang out with linguists a lot (as you might imagine). A lot of linguists are birders (which, if you know any linguists, is not surprising). And so, I get taken along on birding outings occasionally — this is just a normal walk but you have to talk less and look at birds. It’s pretty fun. I like looking at birds, though I’m not one of those people whose brain itch is particularly scratched by knowing the names of them. It’s fine, it just doesn’t set me alight the way my linguist birder friends are set alight. Anyways, for a while I had a hard time figuring out how to spot the birds — sometimes I was able to spot them right off, but it was much harder in wooded areas where there’s a lot of texture and variation in the light. What I finally figured out is that if I stand still, and focus, I can sort of… go into my brain’s settings menu and switch the “look at birds” toggle switch to “on.” The Look At Birds toggle is about asking my eyes to be sensitive to a whole zone, and to see movement, rather than focusing on any particular object.

You see, here, as I am trying to explain it, that it’s really difficult to explain. Yeah, to see more birds you just go into your brain settings and toggle Birds to Yes.

A meme with Jesse and Mr White from Breaking Bad. Jesse: “You just go in the settings menu in your brain and you set the Look At Birds toggle to On.” Mr White: “what.” Jesse: “you know in the settings menu where it’s like the submenu for Looking you set the setting to Birds” (cont’d) “and then instead of looking at objects or trees or shapes or whatever your Looking is set for Birds. it sometimes gets squirrels too so watch out” Mr White: “kirby what the fuck are you talking about”

…Anyways, back to pronouns. You go in your brain’s settings menu and you go look under Gender. There should be a checkbox there — do you have “Pronouns = Gender” clicked? Okay, unclick that.

Did that work? If yes: great! You’re all done! Enjoy some new ways of experiencing the world, feel free to report back. If no: keep reading, let’s try some other stuff.

Gender is a sports team you’re a fan of. The pronouns are the jersey.

I saw a great tweet the other day that sums up some of my dark and private thoughts about my own gender. It’s about the Philadelphia Eagles, which I believe are the football one? (I’m new to Philly, there’s a lot to keep track of, I’m a busy guy, sorry. I think this is the one that involves climbing lampposts, and Gritty is not affiliated, right?)

So, like, say you are an Eagles fan. Does that necessarily mean you want your relatives to constantly be buying you Eagles paraphernalia for every gift-giving occasion? Do you prefer to be seated at a party based on the fact that you support the birds? (It’s bird-themed pronouns blog week, what can I say.) Like… maybe! But every individual fan is going to have their own particular relationship to the team, and having that relationship drawn to peoples’ attention may or may not be a thing you want, and it depends on who’s doing it. That doesn’t make you not a valid fan. You also might continue to be a fan even if you hate the jerseys or the color scheme and never wear any of the merch.

How do people know when to give you merch (use certain pronouns) based on their knowledge of your fandom (gender identity)? Well, hopefully, people know you and have enough of a meaningful relationship with you to have some idea about what jerseys you like and maybe even which players you like and how you feel about how the season is going. When a total stranger comes up and starts assuming things about you based on a keychain your uncle gave you when you were 19, it’s weird, right? But when your best friend photoshops a meme of all the times that exact keychain has showed up in group pictures for the last six years, it’s really funny and touching that your bestie has got such a handle on your exact brand.

So… pronouns. Pronouns! Someone might be referred to as some particular pronoun (say, “she”) for any number of reasons:

  • it’s just what strangers tend to guess because of your stature and you genuinely don’t care enough to correct them
  • you’re at a party with all your gay friends and someone is praising how sharp you got your eyeliner on the first try and it is accompanied by some general hollering, and has nothing in particular to do with “woman” and much more to do with “gay party.” Pronoun is an outfit you wear at the gay party
  • because you’re a fucking woman and you want to staple a flier reminding everyone of this onto every door in the office until they fucking get it right
  • because it’s close enough to whatever’s actually going on that it’s easiest to sort of round up to “she.” You’re not exactly a woman but you comfortably caucus with women (this is the earliest attestation of this great phrase I could find)
  • someone’s intentionally being a dick to you because you’re a cis man and another cis man is homophobically bullying you for wearing your ponytail too high
  • because your parents are used to calling you that and nothing you do or say will make them stop, and the best you can do is just try not to be around to hear it
  • because you’re doing a BDSM scene and part of the role-play is that you’re going to temporarily be a girl for the sake of being a hot and sexy dominatrix and the She is always capitalized but you absolutely would not want any “she” of any form outside of the role-play
  • because your fursona is a catgirl even though you’re neither a cat or a girl so sometimes it’s just how it works out and it’s not that big a deal

Lots of reasons! Lots of reasons some english user might use “she” for you! Depends a lot on you, a lot on the person using the pronoun, a lot on the situation, and a lot on the relationship between the person saying it and the person they’re saying it to! When I say pronouns aren’t gender this is what I mean: pronouns can be one part of the whole gender deal, but they’re not the whole thing, and pronouns alone can’t let you perfectly categorize people. Pronouns and gender are both way too messy in actual naturalistic language use — that’s one of the reasons computers are so bad at them, by the way.

What was the deal with that whole aside about activating my bird-brain, Kirby?

I am asking you to turn on your Looking At Birds settings in your brain for pronouns. Also for gender. Stop trying to identify discrete objects, and let your eyes unfocus and try to perceive the whole field at once. Let your vision draw you to movement.

Before you make any claims about language, I am begging you to be a scientist: go out into nature, shut up, and just look. Just watch for a bit. Don’t filter stuff out. Don’t try to categorize or analyze at the same time as you’re collecting data. Don’t make any decisions about which little twitches in the field of your vision are birds and which ones are “good” birds and whatever. Just pay attention and intake some data. The Looking At Birds setting in your brain is built to take in wayyyyy more data, all at once, in aggregate, but you’ll only be able to access that setting if you stop siphoning off processing power to other stuff like categories and value judgments. Turn those off for a bit so you can just see what’s going on, alright?

Anyways have fun and report back, I can’t wait to hear about some birds you saw!

Thanks for reading! You might also enjoy this related post about the ability to notice pronouns. This work is supported by my ko-fi tips. You can also follow me on twitter.



Kirby Conrod

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.