Here’s an important topic in your EAL/ESL studies: Gender-neutral pronouns.
To refresh your memory, pronouns are used in place of a name. At school, we have been taught that when referring to people in the third person, we use gender-specific personal pronouns – feminine (she/her/hers) and masculine (he/him/his). For example, John is happy. He is happy. /It’s Angelina’s birthday. It’s her birthday.
This is all good until you realize that this practice assumes that people identify as either male or female, period. This is where gender-neutral pronouns come in.
What are gender-neutral pronouns?
Using them is one of the ways by which we advocate for gender-neutral language when writing or talking about people. When we do this, we are communicating accurately and respectfully, consistent with the values of equality. For example, instead of using gender-specific terms like chairman, workman, or policeman, we use chairperson, worker, or police officer. When we refer to them in succeeding sentences, we use gender-neutral pronouns.
Gender-neutral pronouns like they/them/their have been used for a long time. Recently, with gender diversity coming into the picture, their use in the singular form has come to be accepted (especially when the subject has indicated their preference for they/them pronouns). For example:
Dave was in the meeting today and they seemed excited. It has something to do with their new proposal. Let them tell you all about it when you meet!
Aside from they/them/their, a new range of gender-neutral pronouns have been introduced to encompass gender diverse and expansive identities. These are appropriate for those who do not identify on a binary scale (not male or female exclusively). This is why they are also called gender-inclusive pronouns.
Using gender-neutral pronouns shows that we are open to the possibility that there may be transgender or gender non-conforming individuals in the group. We welcome their presence, and we recognize their choice of pronoun. It’s a way to avoid misgendering a person and it is a sign of respect.
Why do we need to use them?
Canada is known to be an inclusive society that celebrates diversity in all its forms. A big part of this is acknowledging diversity, not only in terms of culture, race or nationality but with gender as well. Gender diversity is all about providing recognition, respect, and equal opportunity for all, regardless of gender or gender identity.
(To know more about human rights and gender identity, read Spotlight on gender diversity. What does it have to do with you? )
Using gender-neutral pronouns is a basic yet essential element in this effort. It shows that we are cognizant of gender non-conforming individuals’ need to be validated for who they are. “It is a matter of mutual respect and basic courtesy” (Why pronouns matter, Human Rights Campaign Foundation).
If somebody at work, school or in your social circles makes it known that they prefer that you use specific pronouns for them, listen and take note. It is a small way to encourage inclusivity in your immediate environment.
How do I know which pronoun to use?
The easy answer is: Use the one which the person prefers. Nowadays, you will see people indicating their preferred pronouns when you look them up online or check their business cards. If it’s not indicated, it’s ok to ask.
You cannot tell a person’s pronoun just by looking at them, so as much as possible, don’t assume. If you make a mistake and misgender someone, apologize and move on. Remember to use the correct pronouns in succeeding communications. It can be confusing at times, but it does not mean that you are a bad person. We are all trying to understand, learn and evolve.
Here’s a helpful video on gender identity and pronouns from Tristan of the Pride Centre of Edmonton that may help you understand better:
With thanks to Jared Star, Sexuality and Reproductive Health facilitator of Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC) MB, for reviewing this article.
Article updated August 9, 2021.
Sources: Sexuality Education Resource Centre (SERC) MB; Everything you needed to know about gender-neutral pronouns, Jacob Tobia, Motto; Gender pronouns, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center; History of gender inclusive pronouns, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee LGBT Resource Center; and Talking about pronouns in the workplace, Human Rights Campaign Foundation.
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