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Pronoun Usage

Jackson Bartlett, Associate Director for Inclusive Teaching at CATE
August 8, 2022

The menu of personal pronouns in the English language continues to expand to better reflect the gender diversity within our society.

Moving beyond the him/her binary, trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive communities in particular have advocated for 1) the use of gender neutral pronouns like they/them and neopronouns (new pronouns) such as ze/zir; and 2) the voluntary sharing of pronouns to avoid relying on assumptions about gender identity when interacting with others. This guide offers basic guidance for pronoun usage and provides tools instructors can use to build inclusive classrooms that are more gender-affirming for all.

Two students approach a third and one says,

Everyone has pronouns, regardless of gender identity.

WHAT Heading link

Gender Identity & Pronouns

Personal pronouns are the words we use to refer to one another in multiple tenses without using proper names (she/her/hers, for instance). In English and in many other languages, pronouns are gendered. In these languages, gender is the only direct information pronouns contain. They’re also binary, assuming that there are only two genders: male and female. In languages with gendered pronouns, pronoun usage centers binary gender identity in conversation, in writing, and in our thought processes about ourselves and one another (Prewitt-Freilino, Caswell, & Laakso 2012). The University Library provides an overview of the history of pronouns here.

Pronouns thus have a lot to do with gender identity. But what is gender identity? Gender identity can come from sex assigned at birth and inferences by others based on assumptions about what a certain gender should look or act like. This is known as gender attribution. Importantly, however, gender identity is also based on gender expression, or how one personally identifies and wishes to display their gender to others.

Some people identify with a gender other than that which was assigned at birth. In this case, they may wish to use pronouns for the other gender in the binary. For example, if someone’s assigned gender was male but they identify as female, they would go from using he/him pronouns to she/her.

Gender Terminology: 1. Sex Assigned at Birth, what the medical community labels you; Gender Attribution, how your gender is perceived by others; Gender Identity, how you identify, i.e. see yourself; Gender Expression, how you display your gender

Adapted from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s Gender Terminology Guide

Additionally, though, trans, nonbinary, and gender expansive communities have advocated for a more expansive menu of pronouns to better reflect the range of gender identities or to reject the gender binary altogether. This has led to the introduction of gender neutral pronouns such the singular “they/them/theirs” and neopronouns (new pronouns) like “ze/zir/zirs,” for example, and gender neutral honorifics (Mr./Mrs.) such as “Mx.”

In either case, it’s important when referring to others to use the pronouns the other person identifies with rather than the pronouns we may assume are appropriate based on visual or other cues.

Beyond personal pronouns there are other types of language interventions to neutralize the gender binary. “Latinx” or “Latiné,” for instance, instead of Latino and Latina, which denote male or female with the “o” and the “a.”



As awareness of gender identities beyond the binary of male/female grows, pronouns and pronoun usage have adapted to reflect this understanding. →

A name tag sticker with the text,

Some commonly used pronouns

WHY Heading link

Matching Gender Attribution & Gender Identity

Gender attribution and gender expression are not always aligned when it comes to pronoun usage. Pronouns are often assumed and those assumptions may fail to reflect a person’s actual gender identity and gender expression.

The research is clear that those experiencing a mismatch between gender attribution and gender expression (also known as misgendering) are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and other negative mental health outcomes (Becerra-Culqui, Liu, & Nash 2018; Ehlinger, Folger, & Cronce 2021; Kapusta 2016; Mclemore 2015). By contrast, the use of names and pronouns that accurately reflect gender identity decreases those negative outcomes (Russell, Pollitt, Li, & Grossman 2018; Vance 2018). Researchers have found that misgendering is one of the more salient negative experiences of trans and non-binary students in higher education.

Misgendering can not only cause distress, but it can send messages about misgendering as an acceptable practice in the fields students plan to enter (Whitley 2022).

Accurate gender attribution, on the other hand, can send positive messages about inclusion and classroom and campus climate (Goldberg, Beemyn, & Smith 2018; Goldberg & Kuvalanka 2019; Marine & Nicolazzo 2014; McKinney 2005; Nicolazzo 2016; Prior 2015; Seelman 2014; Stolzenberg 2017).

Misgendering is so impactful for our students because it’s tied to broader patterns of discrimination in society and to the disproportionate violence and family exclusion trans and gender nonconforming people face. What may seem like just a personal slight to a a cisgendered person (a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex) may signal danger to someone whose gender identity could make them the target of violence outside the classroom.

As we seek to create inclusive classroom spaces where students feel seen, heard, and ready to learn, it’s important to use the pronouns that accurately reflect a student’s gender identity. But if we’re not supposed to assume someone’s gender, how do you get it right?

HOW Heading link

Using Pronouns Effectively

As instructors, there are things we can do to create gender-inclusive spaces in our classrooms. The first is to create space for students to safely express their gender identities in the learning environment. When those in the learning community feel confident sharing pronouns, instructors and students have the information they need to respect the gender identity of others. The second is to signal gender-inclusive values to students and establish effective community guidelines for respectful and healthy communication across social differences. Students do not tend to enter spaces assuming they are inclusive; rather, they look for cues. Lastly, as instructors we can practice strategies for managing misgendering when it does occur in ways that promote growth for ourselves and our students.

NOTE:  As with many inclusive teaching practices, creating gender inclusive learning environments is an ongoing practice. Things that may be new for a given instructor, like using neopronouns or asking for pronouns, will become easier over time. And as social norms around gender identity continue to evolve, what gender inclusivity looks like may also evolve.