What are pronouns?
Pronouns are words that are used to refer to either the people talking (I, or you) or someone/something that is being talked about (she, he, they, it or this). Pronouns like she, he and they specifically refer to the people that you are talking about.
We cannot always know a person’s pronouns by looking at them. If you are unsure of what pronouns someone uses, you can politely ask, or check if they are in the person’s email signature or Zoom profile name.
‘She/her/hers’ and ‘He/him/his’ are gendered pronouns. ‘She’ is typically used by women-identifying or femme-aligned people and ‘he’ is typically used by men-identifying or masc-aligned people. Both can be used by people who do not identify as either man or woman.
- “I saw Sarah the other day. She left her bag in the lecture room.”
- “Asish told me that he and his partner are on leave during semester break.”
‘They, them, theirs‘ are common gender-neutral pronouns. These are pronouns that do not imply a gender such as man or woman. Gender-neutral pronouns are typically used by gender diverse and non-binary identifying people but can be used by anyone.
- “Jamie says that they wanted to come to the meeting, but their calendar was just too busy today.”
Some people may ask that you use a combination of pronouns, such as ‘she/they’ or ‘they/he’ – this means that this person is comfortable being referred to using more than one type of pronoun, and that they would like people to use a mix when referring to them. Normally, you would use the same pronoun type in the same exchange, so that people in the conversation know who you are talking about.
- One day on Zoom: “Yixuan has their hand up.”
- And on a different day in a tutorial: “Yixuan said he just needed to go to the bathroom.”
Neopronouns are used in place of she, he or they when referring to a person. Some examples include, but are not limited to: ‘it/its/itself’, ‘xe/xem/xyr’, ‘ze/hir/hirs’ and ‘ey/em/eir’.
- “Inti made a great point when xe spoke about xyr experience studying in Japan.”
Why are pronouns important?
Using a person’s correct pronouns – regardless of if they use he, she, they or other pronouns – is a basic sign of respect in the same way that remembering and using someone’s name when you speak to them or about them is important.
If someone happens to use pronouns that are different to what you might expect, it is likely they have thought long and hard about which ones feel right for them.
Misgendering is a term used to describe accidentally or intentionally using incorrect pronouns about or towards a person. It can happen by accident, and that is okay – you can apologise and correct yourself, or ask what pronouns they use. However, when it happens intentionally, it is considered bullying.
It is not always easy for someone to come out and tell people they are trans* or that they would like you to use a different set of pronouns that feel better for them. You can show your support and respect by normalising the sharing of pronouns at the beginning of a conversation or meeting, and by including your pronouns in your email signature. This helps others to know how to address us and helps us to know how to address others.
If you would like more information, please contact the ANU Ally Network or explore the resources under Related links.