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Pronouns

A pronoun is a part of speech that takes the place of a noun; it is used to refer to someone or oneself, like “I,” “you, “she,” “he” or “they.” When we are talking about gendered language in a U.S. context, we most commonly are referring to third-person singular pronouns, which are gendered in English.


Frequently Asked Questions

What are some common pronouns and how are they used?*

Commonly used third-person singular pronouns are listed below. Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list. New pronouns are coming into use all the time.

Pronoun
Example
She/Her/Hers Sophia lives in Sessions House.
She is a proud Smithie.
You can find her at the CC.
Her major is engineering.
That laptop is hers.
He/Him/His Sophia lives in Sessions House.
He is a proud Smithie.
You can find him at the CC.
His major is engineering.
That laptop is his.
They/Them/Theirs Sophia lives in Sessions House.
They are a proud Smithie.
You can find them at the CC.
Their major is engineering.
That laptop is theirs.
Ze/zir/zirs Sophia lives in Sessions House.
Ze is a proud Smithie.
You can find zir at the CC.
Zir major is engineering.
That laptop is zirs.
Ze/hir/hirs Sophia lives in Sessions House.
Ze is a proud Smithie.
You can find hir at the CC.
Hir major is engineering.
That laptop is hirs.
Xe/xir/xirs Sophia lives in Sessions House.
Xe is a proud Smithie.
You can find xir at the CC.
Xir major is engineering.
That laptop is xirs.
E/em/eirs Sophia lives in Sessions House.
E is a proud Smithie.
You can find em at the CC.
Eir major is engineering.
That laptop is eirs.
Sie/sir/hirs Sophia lives in Sessions House.
Sie is a proud Smithie.
You can find sie at the CC.
Sir major is engineering.
That laptop is hirs.
No pronouns Sophia lives in Sessions House.
Sophia is a proud Smithie.
You can find Sophia at the CC.
Sophia’s major is engineering.
That laptop is Sophia’s.

What if I don’t know what pronoun someone uses?

Making assumptions about pronouns based on what a person looks like may lead to you to misgender them. When you don’t know what pronoun someone uses, ask yourself first if you need to know. If it’s a casual face-to-face conversation, or even a meeting, you can probably just refer to the person directly using their name and the pronoun “you,” as in, “Like Toby was saying before,” or “I have a question for you, Toby.”

For a person you plan to interact with more deeply or over a longer period, the best way to learn what pronouns someone uses is to ask. Keep it simple and just say, “Can I ask you what pronouns you use?” or “I use he/him pronouns, how about you?” It might feel awkward, but people who use pronouns that differ from those that people expect will probably really appreciate your efforts.

We are working to assess how we can make this set of pronouns available in our campus technology systems, with our initial focus being on Workday and Banner.

What do pronouns tell you about a person?

Pronouns get a lot of attention and they’re important, but remember that learning what pronouns a person uses tells you . . . what pronouns that person uses. That’s it. There are people who use they/them pronouns but also identify as male or as female. There are people coming into trans identities who have not changed their pronouns. And there are individuals who use the pronouns they were assigned at birth, but nevertheless have a very complex relationship with their gender.

What if someone uses more than one pronoun? How about “no pronoun”?

When you ask someone what pronouns they use, you might hear something like, “I use she/her or they/them.” You may wonder whether the person really identifies with one over the other, but if that’s all the information you have, then take them at their word that they are comfortable with either and use whichever one you like. You can even try alternating between them. The same goes with people who tell you they don’t care what pronoun you use for them.

If someone uses “no pronoun,” then use their name each time you would use a pronoun (e.g., “Jen has two dinosaur tattoos because Jen really loves dinosaurs.”)

How do you use “they/them” as a singular pronoun?

Some people have objected to the use of “they/them” as a singular pronoun because it is “confusing” or against the rules of grammar. (Not so—grammar rules eventually adapt to the way people use language, plus singular they/them has been used as far back as 1375!). Because they/them is also a plural pronoun, it’s true that using the singular version can create some minor confusions. But that’s a small price to pay for the tremendous benefit the rise of they/them pronouns has created for many, many people who now feel more comfortable having a widely used alternative to English’s binary gendered pronouns.

We’ve all used singular they/them pronouns already, in situations where we speak about one person of an unknown gender: “Someone left their umbrella behind in the classroom. I hope they don’t get soaked!” The same grammatical rules apply—just use “they” where you’d use “she” or “he,” and use a plural verb “are” (instead of “is/am,”) even for a single person (say “they are going to campus” rather than “they is going to campus”). This plural verb rule is similar to that employed by the singular “you”—one would say “you are,” not “you is.”

What if I use the wrong pronoun for someone?

Follow these simple steps:

  • Acknowledge it. (Don’t let it slide)
  • Apologize.
  • Move on.
  • Don’t make it about you.

Being called the wrong pronoun can be a painful experience, so treat it like you would any other accidental hurt you might cause, like stepping on someone’s foot. It’s also something most trans people are acutely aware of, so even if the person you mispronouned is not responding, it’s best to assume that they and others around have noticed.

Here’s a good example: “I’d like to introduce you to my friend Sophia. She—I’m sorry, I meant he—is new to campus.”

Sometimes you don’t notice it until later, or until it is pointed out to you. Again, apologize and correct yourself, but don’t linger in your own feelings of guilt or shame. Excessive apologies can put the burden on the person you harmed to try to make you feel better, which is not their job.

How should I invite people to share pronouns in a group?

When trying to create an inclusive group setting, it’s important to honor how people want to be addressed, which includes using chosen names and correct pronouns for everyone. However, it can also be othering and intimidating for some people to be put on the spot by being asked to share their pronouns right at the beginning with a new group. Here are some guidelines:

  • Explain why you are asking
  • Lead by example
  • Always offer people the option to pass
  • Remember that pronouns can change, so ask every few weeks
  • Have people write pronouns on their nametags or table cards
  • Be prepared to intervene if someone uses the wrong pronoun for someone else—don’t let it slide

Why should I share my pronouns if I am not transgender? Aren’t they obvious?

As mentioned earlier, there is no way to tell by looking what pronoun someone uses, so one reason to share your pronouns if you are cisgender (not transgender) is to clearly communicate to others how you would like to be referred to. Going deeper, sharing your pronouns is an important act of solidarity and allyship. By sharing your own pronouns, you are opening space for others to share theirs and normalizing the process so that the burden is not on trans people to advocate for pronoun inclusion.

Who should I contact if I have further questions?

You can contact the Trans and Non-binary working group at transnb@smith.edu.

*The college respects individual choice in this matter and does not endorse any particular pronoun use in personal communication or informal writing.