By now, everyone has noticed them at the bottom of many email signatures: “She/her/hers.” “They/them/theirs.” “He/him/his.”
Sharing personal pronouns and properly deploying those used by others is standard operating procedure for a growing number of people. For others, using gender-neutral pronouns to make people feel comfortable—or to avoid incorrect assumptions—may still be an area of uncertainty.
This Pride Month, Shige Sakurai, acting director of UMD’s LGBT Equity Center—and the first person in the United States to receive a nonbinary driver’s license—shares some points to keep in mind while working toward a more inclusive vocabulary.
- “They” as a singular pronoun is nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces it all the way back to the 14th-century English translation of the French romance poem “William and the Werewolf.” “Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century,” notes the dictionary. In fact, you probably already use “they” that way without realizing it. Here’s one example: “Somebody left their phone in the kitchen.”
- Don’t be nervous. If you’re worried about getting tripped up on the grammar, Sakurai suggests practicing with a trusted friend or colleague, telling a story in which “they/them” is used for the main character. “You can learn how to recover from making a mistake,” said Sakurai, which they suggest doing by correcting quickly and moving on.
- Sharing your own pronouns is good—but respecting others’ is more important. Putting them in your email signature or on a business card can help create an environment where others feel comfortable sharing theirs, but make sure that you “do a little bit of learning” before taking that step, said Sakurai, founder of MyPronouns.org and of International Pronouns Day. “It creates expectations that you’ll be inclusive and know how to use other people’s pronouns appropriately, so actually make sure you feel comfortable with that before you add” your pronouns, they said.
- Grow your pronoun vocab one step at a time. People might think they have to learn dozens of new pronouns to be truly inclusive. Don’t stress about that, said Sakurai. Be comfortable using “he,” “she” and “they;” if someone tells you they use a pronoun like “ze,” ask for more information if needed. “You need to learn the pronouns people tell you, but not every possible set of pronouns, just as you need to learn the names of people you work with, but not every possible name,” said Sakurai.
- Freshen up your everyday speech and writing with gender-neutral language. “Ladies and gentlemen,” “brothers and sisters,” “he or she”—all of these well-worn phrases can be swapped out for language that doesn’t assume only two genders exist, said Sakurai. Try “folks,” “friends,” “valued guests,” “siblings” or “the individual.”