Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity

Gender Pronouns Resource Guide

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Introduction to Pronouns

Pronouns are the words that we use to refer to a person in place of their name. Pronouns are helpful linguistic tools, but they also are meaningful tools to communicate identities and experiences.

Example of “he/him” usage: Jordan went to the Brodhead Center to eat dinner, but he forgot his DukeCard.

Example of “xe/xem” usage: Maria left xyr backpack and xe has an important paper in there, can you go grab it for xem?

Example of “they/them” usage: Jin has a midterm next week, but they haven’t begun to study yet – they’re so busy with other work!

Example of “she/hers” usage: Erica is a dynamic speaker! Her presentation to our group left everyone feeling inspired. She really did well!

Example of no pronoun usage: Mateo is hosting office hours tomorrow afternoon, be sure to stop by as Mateo can help with the challenging concepts from last week’s lecture!

There is no exhaustive list of pronouns, but most of us are likely already familiar with a few commonly used ones. Many people use one or a combination of the following pronouns: he, she, they, xe, ze, and more. Some people do not use any pronouns and are called by their names. Everyone has a way to be referred to – learning someone’s pronouns is essential to communicating respectfully with one another.

Pronouns are especially relevant to transgender and non-binary students, staff, and faculty, who may experience misgendering, that is, the intentional or unintentional incorrect use of pronouns to refer to them – often in their daily lives.

In order to create a campus environment where all community members can thrive, including LGBTQIA community members, we must be intentional and proactive about our pronoun usage.

More than pronouns

Pronouns aren’t the only language that communicate assumptions about gender. Many common phrases used to refer to groups also have gendered implications – such as “ladies and gentlemen”, “guys”, or “boys and girls”. These phrases make assumptions about the group you’re referring to and enforce a binary that fails to include non-binary people – and can easily be more inclusive with small changes. Try using phrases such as: “guests”, “class”, “everyone”, or “y’all” to refer to groups in a more inclusive way.

A note on language

Pronouns help us communicate our gender identities and expressions, but are also relevant to communicate our cultural, linguistic, and ethnic identities. While this guide primarily discusses pronoun usage in the English language, there are many ways gender exists in languages that aren’t listed in this guide.

Furthermore, it’s important to consider how and if gender shows up in various languages. For example, many words in Spanish are grammatically gendered, and as such some have shifted to using an X in the place of o/a to communicate gender neutrality. Languages like Japanese or Korean do not utilize gendered pronouns. Languages like Malay or Swahili have no grammatical gender. These examples illustrate the intertwined nature of gender, language, pronouns, and cultural identity – an important consideration for educators, peers, and allies looking to create more equitable and inclusive spaces via pronoun usage.

Don’t make assumptions

While pronouns communicate something important about our identities and experiences, they are not inherently connected to any gender identity or expression. For example, if you know Jade is a woman, it may not mean that Jade uses she/her pronouns.

You can’t make assumptions about what pronouns someone uses based on your perceptions of their appearance or gender expression. The only assumption you can make, is that you don’t know what pronouns someone uses without them explicitly telling you. People may have pronouns they use in different spaces. For example, a student may feel safe using some pronouns with their friends and with you, and may use another set of pronouns in a space where they are not out. Always follow up with questions to gain a sense of when and where to use certain pronouns with an individual.

Hearing from our Duke community members

“I came out as a transgender man in a high school with fewer than 500 students total. Within a few weeks, everyone knew about my new name and pronouns, even people I’d never met before. I guess I mistakenly thought the same would be true at Duke.

This semester, I’m in four really fun and interesting classes. About a month ago, there were two incidents within the same week that proved to me that “coming out” is never really done. In my one of my lecture classes, my teacher called on me to answer a question, and then she explained my answer to the class. The problem was that she recounted my answer using the wrong pronouns, saying “she said this” and “her response shows this.” It hadn’t occurred to me that, if one of my professors didn’t know what pronouns I used, I could be totally ignorant to that until late into a course.

I corrected the teacher after the lecture, but I was still left feeling dysphoric and worried that classmates who hadn’t met me would now fundamentally misunderstand my identity. The exact same thing happened in a different class that same week. It made me feel inadequate in my masculinity. It made me feel like I had no voice. It made me feel invisible.

I think it’s hard in a larger, sometimes more impersonal setting like a lecture class to be conscious of minority students. I especially think that it seems impractical to ask a person’s pronouns every time you want to refer to them. However, this puts the responsibility of not getting misgendered onto the student--in this case, me--which can be nerve wracking, tiring, and overwhelming. It feels like I’ve done something wrong when I get misgendered, which happens several times a day now, and don’t think I’d be able to maintain any sense of self-worth if I kept that mentality.”

 

The Importance of Correct Pronoun Usage

Transgender and non-binary students face a variety of challenges in higher education that prevent them from fully thriving. Many transgender people experience peer and familial rejection, which can lead to financial, emotional, or social isolation. On college campuses, many report challenges accessing health services, student programs, or living arrangements that are inclusive of their gender identity and expression. Especially in the absence of non-discrimination laws or policies, transgender students are particularly at risk of harassment, discrimination, and even violence that can be exacerbated by other components of their identities (e.g. race, ethnicity, ability, faith, socioeconomic status).[i]

It is imperative that we all work to make campus safer and more inclusive for transgender and non-binary members of our community. This includes being respectful and thoughtful about how we use language, specifically as it relates to pronouns.

Incorrectly referring to someone’s identity harms their sense of belonging, feeling of coherence in group settings, and personal identity-development processes.[ii],[iii]  Research suggests that misgendering via incorrect pronoun usage may lead to a manifestation of minority stress that burdens transgender and non-binary individuals with a host of negative physical, mental, and emotional health effects.[iv]

Inversely, using the correct pronouns for students, staff, and faculty creates a campus environment that better allows transgender and non-binary people to thrive.[v] Furthermore, some studies link use of the correct name and pronouns to lowered risk of depressive behavior or suicidal ideation.[vi]

Educational institutions across the country recognize the importance of correct pronoun usage and have implemented various programs, tools, and resources to best ensure implementation on campus.[vii] At Duke, we have a responsibility to do the same and create a productive, affirming, and safe learning environment for all members of our community.

 

"Just having the option to [have pronouns on a student roster] makes me feel like I can exist here," says Robles, a graduate student at the University of Vermont whose pronouns are they/them. If there was a fear that a professor might use the wrong pronouns, Robles says, "I [wouldn't] be able to fully be present."[viii]

 

Sharing your pronouns and making an effort to use others’ correctly communicates values of respect and inclusion. Making a mistake may be a natural part of this process, but it should not be used as justification to avoid the effort. If you make a mistake or use the wrong pronoun, quickly apologize and move on. While your intentions may be in the right place, a prolonged apology may draw more unwanted attention to the mistake and may put the person who has been harmed in the position to make you feel better.

Learning new language creates neural pathways in our brains, so using language in a new way can feel challenging to start. The best way to combat this is to practice. Don’t wait until you meet someone who uses pronouns with which you are unfamiliar to start practicing – start now and you’ll be better prepared.

In the remainder of this guide, you’ll find recommendations, tools, and tips to implement in order to encourage and normalize sharing and respect of pronouns in your classes, labs, activities, and communities.

 

[i]. Beemyn, B., Curtis, B., Davis, M., Tubbs, N.J. (2005). Transgender issues on college campuses. New Directions for Student Services, 111, 49-60.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/ss.173
[ii]. Bosson, J. K., Weaver, J. R., & Prewitt-Freilino, J. L. (2012). Concealing to belong, revealing to be known: Classification expectations and self-threats among persons with concealable stigmas. Self and Identity, 11, 114–135. doi:10.1080/15298868.2010.513508
[iii]. Burke, P. J., & Stets, J. E. (1999). Trust and commitment through self-verification. Social Psychology Quarterly, 62, 347–366. doi:10.2307/2695833
[iv]. McLemore, K. (2014). Experiences with misgendering: identity misclassification of transgender spectrum individuals. Self and Identity, 14(1), 1-24.
doi: 10.1080/15298868.2014.950691
[v]. Seelman, Kristie L. 2014. “Recommendations of Transgender Students, Staff, and Faculty in the USA for Improving College Campuses.” Gender and Education 26(6),618–35.
[vi]. Russell, S., Pollitt, A., Li, G., Grossman, A. (2018). Chosen name use is linked to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidial behavior among transgender youth. Journal of Adolescent Health, 63, 503-505.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.02.003
[vii]. Yarmosky, J. (2019, March 21). 'I Can Exist Here': On Gender Identity, Some Colleges Are Opening Up. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/03/21/693953037/i-can-exist-here-on-gender-identity-some-colleges-are-opening-up.
[viii]. Ibid.

Suggestions

If this is new to you, sharing your pronouns and asking for others’ may feel unnatural to start– but remember that we all have pronouns and have likely just been relying on misinformation about others’. This small change in how you introduce yourself and get to know others has a massive impact on the values of inclusion and respect that you can communicate in your everyday interactions.

  1. Understand the relevance of pronouns.
    As previously mentioned, pronouns are more than a linguistic tool – they communicate very personal and salient parts of our identities, cultures, genders, and experiences.
     
  2. Incorporate your pronouns into your daily life
    You can establish a respectful and inclusive learning environment through modeling appropriate pronoun usage. If it is safe for you to do so, consider sharing information about your pronouns:
    • When you introduce yourself: “Hi, my name is Professor X and I use she/her pronouns. I teach statistics at Duke!”
    • Add your pronouns next to your name in Zoom
    • In your email signature:
      • Name
      • Pronouns: She/Her/Hers & They/Them/Theirs (Why Pronouns Matter)
      • Title
      • Institution
      • Contact information
    • On your office door or nameplate
    • On your badge or lanyard at conferences and events
    • On your business card, C.V., and/or resume
    • In your social media biographies and profiles
    • Tip: If you’re unsure, use a person’s name (“PJ will present tomorrow.” or “PJ’s assignment was exactly what I was looking for.” instead of “She will present tomorrow.” or “Her assignment was exactly what I was looking for.”) Use gender neutral language when referring to students in your class until you can learn the correct pronouns. Note that this isn’t a long-term solution, but it’s a good practice until you can institute a framework that allows you to check in with everyone about their pronouns.

Hearing from our Duke community members

“Pronouns in the classroom have been a nightmare for me – especially at the beginning of the semester. When the professor asks for everyone to go around and introduce ourselves, they almost never mention pronouns. It’s usually name and year and maybe an icebreaker, if the professor is extra fun.

But not pronouns. It’s a major source of anxiety for me. Sharing my pronouns is my chance to define myself, to assert not only my identity, but my humanity. Yes, it is that important to me.

I can’t take for granted the privilege of being pronoun-ed correctly; it is often something I need to fight for. And it only takes one person in the class, professor included, to mis-pronoun me and thus deny what is mine, what I am. It is humiliating. It is hurtful.

And most of all, I have no recourse. Do I stop the class and correct people in the moment, braving the pitying and judging stares? Do I confront the person in private and risk direct transphobia?

The answer is: I shouldn’t have been put in this position in the first place. Please, ask for pronouns when doing introductions. Share your own. Make sure to give a brief explanation of what they are, and how using them is a way of respecting others. I will feel that much safer because of it.”

-Theo

  1. Communicate expectations about sharing pronouns 

    Part of modeling inclusive pronoun usage is encouraging other people to share theirs. Inform others that the creation of an inclusive and respectful learning environment includes referring to others by their correct pronouns and names. You may also proactively elect to share examples of how to respond when a student or colleague is misgendered. Here are some tips about where to include guidance about pronouns in order to foster an environment in which correct pronouns are used:
    • Add language about the importance of pronouns in your materials, such as class syllabi or group bylaws.
    • Communicate the importance of sharing and respecting pronouns on the first day of class
    • Remove gendered language from your prompts and examples in the classroom (e.g. no “he/she”, “his/her” - use “they/them”).
    • Remember, it is not suggested that you force students to share their pronouns in group settings as it may have unintended consequences. The presence of a group of peers may create undue pressure on a student who may not be ready to share their pronouns or is questioning them. For example, a student who is exploring their gender identity may not be able to share which pronouns to use and may feel a lot of undue stress if forced to do so. Furthermore, a student that uses a certain pronoun may not be “out” to their classmates yet – in forcing that student to share, you require them to either incorrectly gender themselves or share information that they’re not ready to share. When you introduce yourself with your pronouns and ask others to share, please note that they should only share if they are able and safe to do so.
    • Another note: someone sharing their pronouns with you may be information shared in confidence. Not all students are “out” to everyone about the pronouns they use, so always be sure to ask about the contexts in which it is appropriate for you to use that pronoun for them. Do they want you to correct others who don’t use it? Is it okay to talk to other students using that pronoun? Is it okay to send emails with that pronoun in it?

Hearing from our Duke community members

“In the first week of my seminar class, my professor passed around a card for us to write our basic information on: name, prospective major, interests, writing experience, etc. Most importantly, she asked for our pronouns. I put down he/him pronouns and introduced myself with the same pronouns verbally. I noticed in the class later that week that she would respond to my classmates with phrases like, “yes, sir?”, and “thank you, ma’am,” but she wouldn’t do that for me. After class that day, she had me stay after, and she asked me whether I would be comfortable being referred to with one of those phrases, and if so, which one. I responded that, yes, “sir” would be fine, and we moved on. She didn’t make it a big deal, and she treats me the same as all my other classmates now.

Those few minutes didn’t take up a lot of my day, but it made my life so much easier because it meant I didn’t have to correct her in the middle of a lesson or ask her after class. It felt like she had used her power to handle a responsibility that I would otherwise have had to summon up the courage and energy to confront myself. Of course, I think this is easier in smaller classes and more personal settings, but I think it’s still helpful to keep in mind when you meet new students.”

  1. Beyond pronouns: more ways to support transgender and non-binary people on campus

    Being respectful and thoughtful with your language is an important part of creating an inclusive campus for transgender and non-binary students. However, it should not be the only way you show your support. True allyship requires consistent action on campus, at home, and in your broader community.

    Connect with the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity or other educational resources to continue learning the best ways to support transgender and non-binary people on campus. Engage with other social justice centers and leaders on campus – equity for transgender people is intricately tied to the advancement of anti-racism, gender justice, accessibility, and more. Recognize that social justice work is also about personal work: confront your own biases, knowledge gaps, and discomforts.

 

Every person on campus – students, staff, faculty, alumni, fans, coaches, and families – is an educator. As such, every person has a responsibility to create a supportive environment that is conducive to education. We all have the power to make change within ourselves and in turn, on Duke’s campus, that supports the diverse body of people affiliated with Duke. Changing the way we think about and use pronouns is a great way to do this work, but it is by no means the finish line.

Pronoun Conjugation Chart 

 

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 does not 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.