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Pronouns – What Are They and Why Are They Important?

By Erin Graves

Pronouns – What Are They and Why Are They Important?

If you’re coming to university directly from school, you’ve probably heard heaps of things about how different it is, and that’s definitely true. Universities are giant melting-pots, where diverse groups of students are put into close proximity to each other, in a way that often doesn’t really happen at school. This article is about respecting that diversity and helping you be more accepting, or at least understanding, of transgender people.

Hey, my name is Erin, and I use they/them as my pronouns.

I’d guess that for most of you, this sentence is pretty unfamiliar.

So, I’ll unpack it for you a bit, introduce you to pronouns 101, and provide some helpful tips for being inclusive of trans people within and outside of the classroom.

First: let’s start with the easy bit. My name is Erin. Not that tricky, and I’m sure everyone can understand what this means, so I’ll move on.

Second: I use they/them pronouns. More complicated, but not by much. A pronoun is a word that stands in for the participant in a discourse, or someone or something mentioned elsewhere. They exist to save time and space in conversations, and you’ll be familiar with pronouns such as I, me, you, they, she, he and so on. By stating which pronouns I use, I’m conveying a message to people. I’m saying, “Please understand that I would like for you to use they/them as the pronouns you use to refer to me”. It can definitely be a little tricky at first, and trans people understand that but our pronouns are not optional.

This last bit is really important. If someone tells you that they use a specific set of pronouns, you should try your hardest to use them. If you don’t quite understand what using those specific pronouns entails, ask. Noticing your use of pronouns in speech is something that doesn’t really happen for most people. You’ll make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. The key is to correct the mistake then move on. Don’t make a big fuss about it. Just keep going with the conversation.

Here is a list of some common pronouns that people use. It’s not complete, but it should be a good indicator of the pronouns you encounter.

He/him: This is often used by men.

She/her: Often used by women.

They/them: A really common pronoun amongst non-binary people. Some of the issues people have is that they consider they/them pronouns to be inherently plural. The trick is to use it in the exact same way as you would use they when referring to a group of people. The pronouns only really differ from the plural they in that they use themself as opposed to themselves.

Ze/zir: A neutral pronoun that provides an alternative to they/them. This can be really tricky to get used to, but it works like this. Ze is reading. I asked zir/zem. Zir book is blue. That is zirs. Ze wrote it zirself/zemself.

There are many more pronouns than these, and although these are the most common, you might encounter somebody who uses a different set of pronouns or doesn’t use pronouns at all. As a trans person, I’m asking for understanding and respect. Being misgendered is really bad, and if someone is telling you their pronouns, they are doing it for a reason. 

Please respect them, and use the pronouns that they indicate.

I did promise some tips, so here goes:

  1. If you’re unfamiliar with using some of these pronouns, practice. You can read a passage of text and replace one set of pronouns with another. It might feel odd at first, but it builds up familiarity with other pronouns and helps you use them more fluently.
  2. Read articles or websites. There are so many different resources available online, and checking them out is probably a good idea.
  3. When you introduce yourself, state your own pronouns. It seems really simple, and a tad unnecessary, but it helps other people become more familiar with pronouns in general, and opens the conversation up for someone else to introduce their pronouns too.

There you go. I’ve done an explanation of what pronouns are, some common ones, including usage, and some tips for using what you’ve learned. Thank you so much for reading this article, and I hope you have an amazing time at university. It can be truly amazing, and I hope that you’ll be able to help trans people feel safe and included so that they get the best out of it too.

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