Pronouns are words that can substitute for a noun. Personal pronouns are used to refer to a person when not using their name, and they are the type of pronouns meant when discussing a person's pronouns. Although the topic of personal pronouns has been associated with the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly with people who are transgender or non-binary, everyone has pronouns. They are not something only certain types of people have.
Which pronouns a person uses should not be assumed or guessed. In English, some pronouns have strong social associations with a specific gender identity, typically she/her with women and he/him with men. Although certain pronouns are used more often by certain genders, pronouns do not necessarily indicate an individual's gender identity. For instance, someone who uses the pronouns she/her may be a genderfluid or agender person instead of a binary female person. When someone's pronouns are not known, using the gender neutral singular they/them is recommended. The singular they/them is grammatically correct; more importantly, it is respectful.
Pronouns take the place of a noun or refer to a noun. The functions of personal pronouns are:
- Subject: The person as the subject of a verb; the person doing the action
- Object: The person as the object of a verb; the person acted upon or following a preposition (like "in" or "near")
- Reflexive: Referring back to the person who is the subject of a verb to show the same person is also the object of the action; -self or -selves added
Commonly known and used personal pronouns include:
|Subject||Object||Possessive adjective (determiner)||Possessive pronoun||Reflexive|
|they||them||their||theirs||themselves / themself|
She/her is generally associated with feminine identity, but not limited to it; he/him is likewise generally, but not necessarily, masculine. Singular they/them is often used as a gender neutral kind of pronoun. It/its is used by some people, but it should never be used if it is not explicitly that person's pronoun; "it/its" has a history of transphobic use, and in English is almost exclusively used to indicate non-human objects. One/one's is used as a personal pronoun less often than its use in formal English to refer to a generic or hypothetical person rather than a specific one. People may use multiple pronouns; for example, a person may be comfortable with both "he/him" and "she/her", or "he/him" and "it/its". Some who go by multiple pronouns don't mind if you stick to just one set of them, but some may prefer that you switch them around sometimes. It is better to ask them what they prefer. Some individuals prefer to be called only by their name, and do not identify as using any sort of pronouns.
Some increasingly common practices at workplaces, schools, and universities are stating one's own pronouns during an introduction, listing personal pronouns in e-mail signatures, or wearing university or work badges that indicate the wearer's pronouns. It is often recommended to be very straightforward and casual about one's pronouns, as it is a simple bit of information that is needed to know how to refer to someone. If another person's pronouns are unknown, it is considered polite to privately ask the person about their pronouns in order to refer to them correctly. When someone mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun, it is considered polite to briefly apologize and then continue speaking or writing with the correct pronouns.
Misgendering is using an incorrect pronoun or gendered label when referring to someone. It usually happens due to assuming one's gender identity and pronouns, instead of checking, asking, or using gender neutral terms. Intentional misgendering is especially harmful to transgender people and is a form of psychological mistreatment and demonstrates lack of respect. In 2021, the human rights tribunal in British Columbia, Canada, ruled that deliberate misgendering is a human rights violation. It is a proven fact that respecting one's name and pronouns is beneficial for mental health. In a study on misgendering, 32.8 percent of participants reported feeling very stigmatized when misgendered; frequent misgendering made people feel that their identity was very important, but made them experience lower self-esteem around their appearance. In another study, compared to those without chosen name usage, which is related to respecting one's identity and pronouns, trans people with chosen name usage experienced a 71% drop in severe depression, a 34% drop suicidal ideation, and 65% drop in suicide attempts.
Neopronouns are personal pronouns coined as an alternative to existing third-person singular pronouns. The prefix "neo-" means new or modern, and the term "neopronouns" has been in use for several years, though the exact origin of the term is unknown. Pronouns in English are one of several closed word classes, meaning that their meanings do not change nor are new words added frequently. As such, neopronouns are generally not officially recognized within their language; however, some dictionaries are beginning to include new gender-neutral pronouns.
Neopronouns are not inherently associated with any gender identity. Though they are less widely used, neopronouns can be used in speech and text, as with common personal pronouns. In a 2020 study conducted by The Trevor Project, 4% of approximately 40,000 LGBTQIA+ youth used neopronouns, with 1% using "ze/zir/zirs".
People who use neopronouns may also have "auxiliary pronouns". These pronouns are usually he/him, she/her, or they/them, and serve as alternatives for situations where one's neopronouns cannot be used (such as by some people with learning disabilities, or when a language barrier is present). This term has been used in the community since 2014.
In his 1920 novel A Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsday coined the pronoun "ae" for use by his fictitious alien race, who were "born from air and of a third sex."
In 1970, Mary Orovan published a pamphlet titled humanizing english, which originally proposed the use of "co" as a third-person neutral pronoun, while later publishings proposed "e". The "co" pronoun is currently used as a neutral pronoun in legal policies of the Twin Oaks community, located in Virginia.
The pronouns "ve/vir/vis" were created early in the 1970s, with their first recorded use being in the May 1970 edition of Everywoman. They were later featured in The Bone People (1984) by Keri Hulme, and Greg Egan's books Distress (1995) and Diasopora (1998).
In 2021, social media platform Instagram introduced an optional "pronouns" field to their user profiles. This section came with a list of pronoun options, of which a user could select any four, but not fill in pronouns themself — presumably to prevent abuse of the feature.
The list of pronouns you could select from included several neopronoun sets, with "co/cos", "e/em/eir", "fae/faer", "per/pers", and "mer/mers" featured, among others; Instagram has given no indication of why these pronouns were selected in particular. The explicit inclusion of neopronouns in this feature reflects a growing consciousness of neopronouns among both the general public and corporations.
Common neopronouns include:
|Subject||Object||Possessive determiner||Possessive pronoun||Reflexive|
Less common neopronouns include:
|Subject||Object||Possessive determiner||Possessive pronoun||Reflexive|
Gender-neutral pronouns in gendered languages
Some languages do not have gendered pronouns, but many languages lack a gender neutral pronoun that can be used to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or someone non-binary, equivalent to the English singular "they". There are attempts to create new gender neutral pronouns for gendered languages. A successful example is Swedish; in 2014, the gender neutral pronoun "hen" was added to the Swedish Academy Dictionary and has become widely understood since. "Hen" was created by changing the vowel in the existing "han" ("he") and "hon" ("she").
French is an official language in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Some non-binary French speakers use the pronoun "on" (which can mean "they", "he", "she", or "one" depending on the context) as a personal pronoun. Others have taken "il" ("he") and changed the first vowel to create "ol" and "ul" as gender neutral pronouns; however, these have not been widely recognized. In 2021, the major French dictionary Le Robert added the neopronoun "iel/iels" as a third-person neutral pronoun; French previously did not have any official neutral pronouns. It is alleged that the term was created in 2013 as a portmanteau of "il" and "elle", the masculine and feminine French pronouns.