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Personal pronouns: Why do they matter?

4 August 2022

4 mins

Image courtesy of Getty Images

The LGBT+ Staff Network has been working with colleagues from across the University to raise awareness about the use of personal pronouns. It can be easy to assume what someone’s personal pronouns are, but your assumption might be wrong.

This piece looks at pronouns in more detail, explaining what they are, when to use them, and why it’s important to respect other people’s personal pronouns.

Learning about personal pronouns is one of the many ways we can make Loughborough University a more inclusive institution which respects and celebrates diversity.

What are pronouns?

Pronouns are words we use to refer to each other in the third person. When we know someone’s gender, we often use gendered pronouns to refer to them. For example:

“Geoff is my partner. He works in the NHS.”
“Have you met Priya. It’s her first day.”

What are ‘personal’ pronouns?

Your personal pronouns are the ones you have decided people should use to refer to you. It’s important that when someone has made you aware of their personal pronouns you always use those, whether or not the person you’re referring to is there.

Gender-neutral pronouns

In everyday speech when we don’t know the gender of the person we’re talking about, we naturally use gender-neutral pronouns such as they/them/their. For example:

“Someone has left their phone behind. I hope they come back for it.”

However, some people use they/them/their as their personal pronouns (rather than he/him or she/her, for example). This may be because their gender identity is not encompassed within the man/woman gender binary. They may call their gender identity ‘non-binary’, ‘genderqueer’ or another similar term. In these instances, he/him or she/her is replaced by they/them. For example:

“David likes coffee. They often buy it from the café.”

“Were you in a meeting with Alex earlier? Their MS Teams background was excellent.”

When should we share our personal pronouns?

It’s helpful to make your personal pronouns known so people understand which ones to use in a given context – you could let people know when introducing yourself in a meeting, or by stating them on any online profiles you have.

Some people may feel uncomfortable sharing their personal pronouns, particularly if they’re unsure about their own gender identity or do not feel ready to share it with others. Therefore, nobody should feel compelled to state or share their personal pronouns. However, it is worth bearing in mind that not expressing a preference will not stop people from assuming your pronouns, so it may be worth expressing what your current preference is, on the understanding that it’s okay to change this later.

How are sharing personal pronouns helpful?

Most of us have learned to assume someone’s gender identity based on cues such as their appearance, voice, or name. We judge whether they are a man or a woman and use gendered personal pronouns “he” or “she” based on this. This can go wrong when someone has a gender-neutral name such as “Sam”, or because they do not conform to our expectations of gendered characteristics. 

You may feel that your gender, and therefore your pronouns, are obvious to the people around you.  However, people whose gender expression does not match the expectations of others often need to explicitly tell people what pronouns they use. Normalising sharing our pronouns is an act of solidarity with these people so that they do not stand out as different. This makes the environment more inclusive.

What if I get someone’s pronouns wrong?

If you make an honest mistake (and naturally, mistakes happen!), simply correct yourself and move on. There’s no need to make a big deal about it; doing so just draws attention to the mistake and makes the situation more uncomfortable.

However, deliberately misgendering someone, including using the wrong pronouns, is offensive and may be considered harassment. It is upsetting for the individual because you are choosing to undermine their identity.

For more information on personal pronouns and how to use them, take a look at the following resources:

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

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