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We All Have Pronouns

A pronoun is a word that may substitute for a noun or noun phrase in a sentence. These may refer to people (“You love dogs.”) or to objects and places (“Tom ate it.” “Joe went there.”).

We all have a set of pronouns that are used when people refer to us in the third person. Specific pronouns are often associated with certain gender identities. “He, him, his” are used most often for masculine people, and “she, her, hers” for feminine people.

Using someone’s correct pronouns is an important aspect of showing respect for them and their gender identity, and helps create an inclusive environment. Failing to respect pronouns causes stress and lead to concerns about personal security, according to ASHA.

Asking About Pronouns

Unless explicitly stated, when introduced to a new person we make an assumption about their gender identity, and pick a pronoun to match. Elements of gender expression, such as name, clothing, appearance, and speech guide our assumptions.

Sometimes, however, our assumptions are incorrect, and do not reflect that individual’s gender identity. Asking about pronouns is important to make sure you are addressing everyone accurately and with the respect they are due.

When conducting formal introductions, sharing your own pronouns can naturally encourage others to do the same. For example, introduce yourself by saying “Hello, my name is Jane and my pronouns are she, her, hers.” Avoid insisting someone share their pronouns, as this may cause discomfort for those who are not yet public with their gender identity.

Pronouns are also shared in email signatures, social media biographies, and elsewhere. Sharing pronouns in public spaces is important to normalize the practice, so that it does not immediately identify someone as transgender, putting them in an uncomfortable or unsafe situation.

Gender Neutral Pronouns

The pronouns “he, him, his” and “she, her, hers” are associated with masculine and feminine gender identities. Sometimes, neither reflects an individuals gender identity. Nonbinary people, as well as those with many other identities, commonly use “they, them, theirs” as gender neutral pronouns.

Some grammarians consider this to be incorrect. This is because “they” is most often used as the third-person plural pronoun in English. However, use of “they” as a singular pronoun for someone of unknown gender dates back to 1375.

We still use “they” as a singular for this purpose every day, most often unconsciously, and many linguists have observed that “they” has almost completely replaced “he or she” to refer to someone of unknown gender.

For example, upon finding a lost phone, we might ask the room, “Did anyone lose their phone?” as opposed to “Did anyone lose his or her phone?” Many grammar style guides, such as APA and Merriam-Webster, reaffirm this singular usage.

Additionally, changes to language are happening constantly, from the removal of words from our language (“how art thou?”) to the introduction of new ones (“let me google that”). This is normal for all languages.

A descriptivist approach to grammar (describing how language is really used, as opposed to rules for “correct” usage) is additionally important for recognizing the value of culturally significant language variations, and is the dominant view among linguists.

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Pronouns and CSD

Challenges to traditional ways of using language may be a hurdle for CSD professionals, who are often seen as authorities on language or language acquisition. We urge all professionals to see these changes not as a challenge to their knowledge and expertise, but as an opportunity for continued learning and improvement of services.

Pronouns in Higher Education

Not all universities have strong policy protections for students regarding the use of pronouns. Faculty may find it beneficial to familiarize themselves with their institution’s policy on utilizing chosen names and pronouns, and to be a resource for students.

If students indicate pronouns as part of their introduction, faculty should take a note of this, and recognize that a student’s name and gender expression may not align with the class roster. When in doubt, ask individually and respectfully, without drawing attention to the situation.

Addressing a group is also a common issue, further exacerbated by the gender demographics in CSD. Avoid referring to a group as “ladies” or any other gendered term, as it may not be reflective of all people. Alternatives include “folks,” “people,” “crowd,” or simply “everyone.” Avoid making a joke out of the situation (“Alright ladies, plus John!”), as it places potentially unwanted attention on someone who already stands out.

Pronouns in Clinical Settings

Clinicians should feel empowered to use their pronouns in the clinic setting, and respecting this should be a core part of an institution’s culture. There is nothing unprofessional about one’s gender identity or expression, including the use of any pronouns.

ASHA provides a resource on supporting and working with transgender and gender diverse clients that reiterates pronoun use a way to show respect. It states, “As the service provider, our first responsibility is to the individuals we serve. Using correct pronouns is a way of respecting their dignity and falls in line with ASHA’s Principle of Ethics I.”

In some cases, a client may use pronouns that a parent disagrees with. In such cases, ask the client what they prefer you do. Some options include only referring to that client by their name, using gender neutral pronouns, or switching between pronoun sets to speak to the client or parents.

Pronouns are also a relevant issue when performing assessments, which may use a limited view of gender identity and expression when assessing gendered terms or pronoun use. Improving assessments to be more gender-inclusive has been an ongoing project of L’GASP.

Frequently Asked Questions

What if I use the wrong pronoun?

Simply and quickly apologize for the mistake and move forward. Do not draw additional attention to the error. If you need additional clarification or a reminder of a someone’s name or pronouns, ask them privately and respectfully.

Why do we no longer say “preferred pronouns”?

Preferred pronouns (and preferred name) were accepted ways to discuss this concept in the past. However, it is now more appropriate to omit the term “preferred” when referring to the pronouns someone uses to describe themselves. A preference implies an acceptable alternative. Simply put, pronouns (or someone’s name) are not a preference, because there is not an acceptable alternative to using them correctly.

What does it mean if someone lists multiple different pronouns?

Listing multiple different pronouns means that any of those pronouns are acceptable. They may be listed as one set, for example “my pronouns are he, they,” or written in an email or social media profile as (he/they). Generally, the pronouns that come first are to be used most often. When someone indicates that they use multiple pronouns, the term “preferred pronouns” is acceptable to describe the pronouns they want used most often.

What if someone uses pronouns I am not familiar with?

Sometimes, individuals may elect to use neopronouns, or sets of pronouns which offer an alternative to existing pronouns , which may not align with someone’s gender identity. Some common examples are “xe, xem, xyr” or “ey, em, eir.” These may take some getting used to, but using them correctly conveys respect. There are also online resources to practice using these in sentences.

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