Everything you need to know about gender pronouns

Pronouns have a large role in language and gender identity.


Pronouns can be confusing for some people, but to many, they are a very important part of gender identity. Pronouns, or specifically “gender pronouns,” refer to a person being talked about while also often expressing gender. The most common gender pronouns are he/him, she/her, and they/them. There are many other gender-neutral pronouns, although they aren’t as common. Some people also may prefer to be referred to as their name and forego pronouns entirely. Pronouns were first created for grammatical efficiency, but have evolved to be a much more important part of gender identity to many.

Many languages across the world recognize multiple different genders; in fact, 112 out of 257 classified languages have some form of grammatical gender. Historically, there have been many gender-neutral pronouns in the English language. The pronoun “Ou,” which was used in place of he, she, it, they, and even I in some cases, has been traced back to the fourteenth century. One of the earliest recorded use of this pronoun is by an English writer, John Trevisa. Another example is “thon,” a gender-neutral singular pronoun that dates back from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. The pronoun was first coined in 1858 by Charles Converse, an attorney and composer, and is short for “that one,” but can also be used in place of he, she, or it. “Thon” was added in the Unabridged dictionary in 1934 until it was removed in 1961 as a result of its lack of use.

Although there have been many attempts at introducing gender-neutral pronouns in the English language, the pronoun “they/them” has been used since the 1300s and is only gaining more traction as time goes by. This pronoun, as a reflection of non-binary gender identities, has become increasingly common in recent years. In mid-September, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added a new definition to the word “they.” It has now been included that the pronoun may be used to refer to a “single person whose gender identity is non-binary.”

An argument against the pronoun “they/them” is that it isn’t academically correct or grammatical; but with this recognition by the dictionary, this argument is no longer valid. Many English speakers rely on dictionaries to set strict rules on how the language works, and although this is understandable, dictionaries have never had this duty. Dictionaries are an indication of how language is being used at a given point in time; they don’t set rules on how people should behave.

Another argument against the pronoun “they/them” is that it’s too confusing. Merriam-Webster wrote in an article that “regardless of what detractors say, nearly everyone uses the singular they in casual conversation and often in formal writing.” So, those who argue that the gender-neutral pronoun is confusing most-likely already use it in day-to-day life without a second thought. There are no valid arguments for why one shouldn’t respect the gender-neutral pronoun “they/them.”

Recently, there have been improvements in the inclusion of non-binary individuals. Canada has introduced a gender-neutral “X” option on passports; some states in America have also begun offering “X” as a gender marker on ID. Not to mention, many airlines, school districts, and colleges have begun to offer alternative gender markers.

Although many don’t recognize the privilege they have of always being referred to with the correct pronouns, it is important to recognize that not everyone has this privilege. If it isn’t obvious what someone’s pronouns are, ask them. If one accidentally uses the wrong pronouns for an individual, apologize and correct oneself. Habits such as these will lead to others feeling much more respected and recognized. Pronouns aren’t important to everyone, but it is good to remember that to some, pronouns hold great value.