Pronouns are words that substitute for nouns. Personal pronouns are part of our everyday language, especially in the Romantic Languages. In English, we often refer to others using gendered pronouns. It is difficult to speak without using pronouns, when we have been socialized and educated to use them. Pronouns are an important part of language. However, their use in understanding gender is often underestimated.
At Michigan State University, community members should be referred to by the pronouns which they identify with. The pronouns we select for a person are usually based on our assumptions of how the person identifies based on their appearance or name. We can be easily mistaken and can cause unintentional harm by mispronouning and misgendering someone.
Using the pronouns that a person asks for you to use is a way to show them respect and to create a more trans inclusive environment. Bottom line: using someone’s pronouns is about basic human dignity.
Having people automatically use the pronouns with which you identify is a part of having cisgender privilege. Sharing your pronouns and using the pronouns that someone asks you to use is a powerful way to be an ally to the Trans community.
Need more information, please consider attending an Understanding Pronouns Workshop with the LBGTRC. The next training is scheduled for October 16, International Pronouns Day. For more information, please visit our Workshops and Education Page.
Have questions or challenges? Check out our FAQ section at the bottom of this page.
Check out the digital card below that shows how to use gender pronouns.
- MyPronouns.Org (Resource Page first published and written by Shige Sakurai, 01/22/2017)
- 5 Ways Using Correct Gender Pronouns Will Make You a Better Trans* Ally (Article by Laura Kacere, published on 09/23/2013)
- What to Do (and Not Do) When Someone Asks for Different Gender Pronouns (Article/Comic by Robot Hugs, published on 11/20/2014)
- What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns (Article by Sam Dylan Finch, published on 09/15/2014)
- Why Pronouns Matter (Video by BuzzFeed, published on 03/16/2015)
- You Know Those Common Objections to ‘They’ Pronouns? Here Are 9 Simple Facts to Shut Them Down (Article by Adrian Ballou, published on 05/14/2015)
Tips About Pronouns
- Do not refer to a person’s pronouns as their “preferred” pronouns or “gender” pronouns. Using “preferred” implies that a person’s pronoun selection is merely a preference and, therefore, something that is not required. Using “gender” ignores people who are agender.
- Always use the pronouns that a person asks you to use.
- When you make a mistake, ACT: Apologize > Correct > Try Again.
- Do not assume you know someone’s pronouns based on their name, they way they look, their voice, how they dress, or any other factor.
- If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, ask (politely). And: don’t just ask people who appear to be “ambiguously gendered.”
- Share your pronouns and create opportunities for people to share their pronouns, like in email signature or at the beginning of meetings. Please note that some transgender and nonbinary people will opt out of sharing as a means of self-protection.
What if I make a mistake?
It’s okay! Everyone slips up from time to time. The best thing to do if you use the wrong pronoun for someone is to correct yourself right away, like “Last week, she and – he and I went to the store.” If you realize you made a mistake after the fact, apologize in private and move on.
It can be tempting to go on and on about how bad you feel that you messed up or how hard it is for you to get it right. But please, don’t do that. It is inappropriate and makes the person who was misgendered feel awkward and responsible for comforting you, which is absolutely not their job. It is your job to remember people’s pronouns.
How do I ask someone what pronouns they use?
Try asking: “What pronouns do you use” or “Can you remind me what pronouns you use?” It can feel awkward at first, but it is not half as awkward as getting it wrong or making a hurtful assumption.
If you are asking as part of an introduction exercise and you want to quickly explain what a pronoun is, you can try something like this:
Tell us your name, where you come from, and your pronouns. That means the pronoun you use in reference to yourself. For example, I’m Sparty, I’m from East Lansing, and I use he, him, and his pronouns. So you could say, ‘he went to Spartan Stadium’ if you were talking about me.”
Why is it important to respect people’s pronouns?
You can’t always know what someone’s gender pronouns are by looking at them. Asking and correctly using someone’s pronouns is one of the most basic ways to show your respect for their gender identity. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, alienated, and/or dysphoric (but most often, it is all of the above).
We recommend reading Sam Dylan Finch’s piece on “What You’re Actually Saying When You Ignore Someone’s Gender Pronouns” to learn more about respecting gender pronouns.