Guide to Understanding Personal Pronouns

What are your pronouns? This guide shares why pronoun use is important, how it supports LGBTQ+ mental wellness, and what to do when we make mistakes.

portrait of R.B. Brooks, M.Ed.
by R.B. Brooks, M.Ed.

Updated July 6, 2022

Edited by Lorraine Mumby
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Guide to Understanding Personal Pronouns
Image Credit: Tassii / E+ / Getty Images

We. I. You. Each. All. Everyone. These are all pronouns. However, these are not the pronouns that spur contentious political action or feature in academic lawsuits.

Using and sharing personal pronouns such as they/them, he/his, and she/her is a major advocacy point for many LGBTQ+ people because it is closely connected to their identities and their relationships to others. Trans and non-binary people especially are eager to be referred to by the correct pronouns as a way to affirm their identities as they go through social or medical transitions.

Each year, The Trevor Project's national survey on LGBTQ+ youth mental health indicates the life-saving importance of using LGBTQ+ people's correct pronouns. For example, the 2022 survey found that 47% of respondents felt support from parents or caregivers when their names and pronouns were used correctly.

What Are Neopronouns?

Personal pronouns are the pronouns an individual uses to refer to themself and how others should refer to that person. Pronouns are necessary for communicating with and about each other.

Neopronouns refer to pronouns that have been newly created or popularized for personal use. New sets of pronouns may be created as an alternative to more well-known sets of pronouns and offer trans and nonbinary people a wider variety of pronouns to choose from if they would like to use different pronouns.

When someone shares their pronouns, either verbally during an introduction activity or in writing such as in their email signature, those pronouns should always be used unless that person has communicated otherwise.

There may be instances where someone doesn't want their pronouns used due to safety concerns, such as if a parent or guardian is present that doesn't know their student uses different pronouns at school than they do at home.

The table below provides a list of regularly used pronouns and how to use them in a sentence. This is not an exhaustive list and focuses on American English pronouns.

Common Pronouns and How to Use Them
____ went to the store. Give this book to ___. Do you have ____ number? I am a friend of ___. The teacher introduced ____.
He Him His His Himself
She Her Her Hers Herself
They Them Their Theirs Themself
E/Ey Em Eir Eirs Eirself
Per Per Pers Pers Perself
Xe Xem Xyr Xyrs Xemself
Ze/Zie Hir Hir Hirs Hirself
[Person's Name] [Name] [Name]'s [Name]'s [Name]'s self

Why It Is Important to Use Personal Pronouns

Using Pronouns for Equity and Inclusion

Tip 1: Acknowledge Mispronouning and Misgendering

Being addressed incorrectly can be painful, especially when these mistakes are ignored. If you you realize you misspoke, acknowledge the mistake, apologize in the moment or as soon as possible, and move on. Check in with that person later to see if there's anything else you can do.

Tip 2: Display Pronouns Wherever Possible

Including pronouns in email signatures, business cards, door hangings, and online display names are a few examples of how to normalize sharing pronouns. Placing pronouns in visible places invites others to share pronouns in ways beyond introductions.

Tip 3: Challenge Assumptions Based in Privilege

Most spaces prioritize cisgender and heterosexual people. Being attentive to how this shows up in shared spaces and addressing language, policies, programs, and experiences that uphold these privileged identities can break barriers to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Tip 4: Avoid Needlessly Gendered Language

Gendered language can exclude LGBTQ+ people — especially trans and nonbinary indiviuals. There are often easy alternatives for gendered language, such as using "sibling'' instead of "brother or sister'' or "parent'' instead of "mother or father."

Tip 5: Be Precise About a Space's Purpose

If it isn't clear that LGBTQ+ students are included in a space, they may not show up. Crafting language that expresses the explicit purpose of the space can help clarify what to expect when attending an event or accessing a service.

Additional Educational Resources

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Frequently Asked Questions About Personal Pronouns

What should I do if I use the wrong pronoun?

Acknowledge the mistake, correct yourself in the moment, and move on. Do not apologize excessively as this can put undue stress on the person who's been mispronouned to console you instead. Do not justify the mistake by stating things like "I'm trying," as this can be perceived as though using someone's pronouns is an inconvenience.

If you don't realize you made a mistake until much later, briefly acknowledge your past mistake in your next conversation or bring it up with them when you realize what happened. Try something like, "By the way, I realize I used an incorrect pronoun last time we spoke. I'm sorry about that."

Should I ask someone's pronouns?

Yes. Asking people's pronouns normalizes the practice and contributes to more inclusive spaces. You shouldn't assume anyone's pronouns. Start by sharing your own pronouns and ask others to share. You can simply ask "What are your pronouns?" or "What pronouns would you like used in this space?"

If the person is hesitant to respond or gives a response such as "Anything's fine," don't force the issue — folks may not feel safe or comfortable sharing their pronouns.

When should I use the pronouns "ze" and "zir"?

Anyone can use these pronouns for themselves. If referring to another person, these pronouns should only be used if that person has shared they use ze/zir pronouns.