Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity

Gender Pronouns Resource Guide

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Gender Pronouns: An Introduction

What are “gender pronouns?”

The third-person pronouns that we use in the English language that identify a person or something a person possesses, like he/him/his, they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, etc.

Why do they matter?

Most of us probably don’t spend too much time thinking about what pronouns people use when talking to and about us. However, there are many people who use pronouns other than those they were assigned at birth, such as transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people. For transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people, pronouns are a real and exhausting stressor. Using the wrong gender pronouns when referring to someone is one way of misgendering, and this can cause intense feelings of dysphoria (a feeling that one’s gender identity has been ignored or invalidated and a corresponding discomfort in one’s body and mind) and worthlessness.

Using the right gender pronouns is a great and easy way to show love and respect for each other.

When should we ask for them?

In general, it is a good idea to ask a group that you are facilitating to share pronouns during an introduction. However, if you sense it may be unsafe for someone to disclose their gender identity in a given space, use discretion. If someone does not want to provide their pronouns, that wish should be respected.

In group settings and one-on-one interactions, the best way to model pronoun usage is to introduce yourself with your gender pronouns. For example, “Hello my name is Aiden, and I use the pronouns He/He/His and They/Them/Theirs.” This will signify that not only are you conscious of pronoun usage, but also that you will respect others if they disclose. It is not appropriate to only ask for pronouns when you suspect that someone may be transgender, gender non-conforming, or nonbinary, because it can be construed as inconsiderate and disrespectful to someone’s identity. When doing so, it relies upon a faulty assumption that you can tell someone is transgender based on your perception of their gender expression.

How should we ask for them?

A simple question! “What are your pronouns?” Avoid asking for “preferred” pronouns. Although this was once common practice, it has been called into question, as gender pronouns are not “preferred” and they are not optional, but encompass a vital part of someone’s identity.

How should I respond if someone asks me for my pronouns?

Be as clear as possible! When someone asks you for your gender pronouns, it’s best to answer in a format like “she/her/hers” or “they/them/theirs.” If you say things like “female pronouns” or “just whatever!” then the person you’re speaking with does not get a clear answer for how to refer to you.

I’ve heard some people use multiple pronouns?

You are correct. Someone might use multiple sets of pronouns. You may hear someone say “He/She/They” or “She and They” in response to the question “What pronouns do you use?”

Using the right pronouns is hard, though.

Yes, it can be. Especially when a person uses pronouns with which you are unfamiliar, like ze/zir/zirs or ey/em/eirs. But like with everything, practice makes perfect! A website like Practice With Pronouns can help you along, in addition to the exercises that can be found in this resource. While it may take some effort, this is a very easy and necessary way to affirm transgender, gender non-conforming, or nonbinary people.  

What if I mess up someone’s pronouns? What if I hear someone else mess up my friend’s pronouns?

If you’re the one who has misgendered someone, apologize, correct yourself, and make an effort to do better next time. Making a big deal about your mistake, can feel even worse to the person who has been misgendered. Consider having a conversation with the transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary people in your life about what they would like you to do if someone misgenders them in your presence. Not everyone wants someone else to be their “pronoun bodyguard,” so to speak, but some folks do.

What about the classroom?

Faculty members can establish a respectful and inclusive learning environment within the classroom setting through role modeling appropriate pronoun usage. Let students know that the creation of an inclusive and respectful learning environment includes referring to others by their pronouns and names. Faculty may proactively elect to share examples of how to respond when a student or colleague is misgendered in the classroom. There are many additional actions faculty can take to foster greater inclusion of transgender, gender non-conforming, and nonbinary students.

Keep in mind not all transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary students will be comfortable indicating their pronouns. Lastly, please exercise caution to avoid outing students who come out to you or share their pronouns with just you.

What are some actions I can take?

  • Include your gender pronouns in your email signature:
  • Include your gender pronouns in a course syllabus, website biographies, on business cards and other places where your name is visible.
  • Ask people to include their pronouns on name tags. You can print out name tags with pronouns when you host events. Try these printable all pronoun name tag templates
  • Replace language such as “ladies and gentlemen” or “men and women” with gender-inclusive language such as “everyone” or “y’all.”
  • When drafting documents, avoid using gendered language such as (s)he or he/she. Using the singular they/them/theirs can help to avoid unnecessarily gendering language.

Some Common Pronouns

 

Subject

Object

Possessives

Reflexive

Example Sentence

she

she

her

her/hers

herself

She went to the movies with her friend who loves to hang out with her. The movie pick was hers. She enjoyed herself.

he

he

him

his

himself

He went to the movies with his friend who loves to hang out with him. The movie pick was his. He enjoyed himself.

they

they

them

their/theirs

themself

They went to the movies with their friend who loves to hang out with them. The movie pick was theirs. They enjoyed themself. 

ze with zir

(pronounced “zee” and “zeer”)

ze

zir

zir/zirs

zirself

Ze went to the movies with zir friend who loves to hang out with zir. The movie pick was zirs. Ze enjoyed zirself.

ze with hir

(pronounced “zee” and “heer”)

ze

hir

hir/hirs

hirself

Ze went to the movies with hir friend who loves to hang out with hir. The movie pick was hirs. Ze enjoyed hirself.

xe

(pronounced “ze”)

xe

xem

xyr/xyrs

xyrself

Xe went to the movies with xyr friend who loves to hang out with xem. The movie pick was xyrs. Xe enjoyed xyrself.

ey

(pronounced “ay”)

ey

em

eir/eirs

emself

Ey went to the movies with eir friend who loves to hang out with em. The movie pick was eirs. Ey enjoyed emself.

Person prefers not to use pronouns. (example name: Mary)

Mary

Mary’s

Mary’s

Mary’s self

Mary went to the movies with Mary’s friend who loves to hang out with Mary. The movie pick was Mary’s. Mary enjoyed Mary’s self.

 

(tip: try saying these aloud! it will help you get used to speaking them as well as writing them)

1. Fill in with ze/zir pronouns!

I went with _______ to pick blueberries, because _____ said they were in season, but not for much longer. ______ drove both of us in ______ car, and I used Google Maps to get us there, because _______ can be a little directionally challenged. When we got there, I paid for _____ and myself and we picked blueberries for almost two hours. We kept eating them as we were picking them, though—_______ had juice all over _______by the time we left.

2. Fill in with they/them pronouns!

When _____ called me about where I was going to spend fall break, I said that I didn’t know yet. _____ asked if I wanted to go on a road trip with _______ and a few of our mutual friends. I said it sounded great, and asked _______ what I should pack, since I didn’t have a suitcase with me. _______ offered me one of ________ to borrow, and I accepted.

3. Fill in with xe/xyr pronouns!

_______ called me after a long day at work and said that ______ had made a spectacle of _______ in a staff meeting. I reassured ______, and then offered to come over and bring ______ some of _______ favorite chocolate treats to unwind. We watched a stupid romantic comedy that was a favorite of _______ and by the end of it, ________ was feeling much better about the day.

4. Fill in with ey/em pronouns!

______ is the star in a new musical opening next week at the community theater, and I’m very excited to go and see ______ perform! _____ has been acting since age five, and _____ talents have grown considerably over the years. When ______ first started performing, ______ got the role of “Tree #3,” but now in this new production _____ has a number all to ______, with a beautiful costume that fits _______ perfectly.

1. I went with zir to pick blueberries, because ze said they were in season, but not for much longer. Ze drove both of us in zir car, and I used Google Maps to get us there, because ze can be a little directionally challenged. When we got there, I paid for zir and myself and we picked blueberries for almost two hours. We kept eating them as we were picking them, though—ze had juice all over zirself by the time we left.

2. When they called me about where I was going to spend fall break, I said that I didn’t know yet. They asked if I wanted to go on a road trip with themself and a few of our mutual friends. I said it sounded great, and asked them what I should pack, since I didn’t have a suitcase with me. They offered me one of theirs to borrow, and I accepted.

3. Xe called me after a long day at work and said that xe had made a spectacle of xyrself in a staff meeting. I reassured xem, and then offered to come over and bring xem some of xyr favorite chocolate treats to unwind. We watched a stupid romantic comedy that was a favorite of xyrs and by the end of it, xe was feeling much better about the day.

4. Ey is the star in a new musical opening next week at the community theater, and I’m very excited to go and see em perform! Ey has been acting since age five, and eir talents have grown considerably over the years. When ey first started performing, ey got the role of “Tree #3,” but now in this new production ey has a number all to emself, with a beautiful costume that fits em perfectly.

Written by Savannah Lynn, T’18. Updated August 8, 2019. Created for the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke.

Want to add your gender pronouns to Zoom? Follow these instructions to do so: https://studentaffairs.duke.edu/csgd/resources/changing-pronouns-zoom