Posted Jan 22

Gender identity 101: personal pronouns

by James Egan
Gender identity 101: personal pronouns by James Egan

To help you get a better understanding of what gender identity really means and to guide you moving forward, we’ve put together a three-part feature that touches on some of the key areas encompassing gender identity today. Read part 1 here.

For this second part, we look at the importance of personal pronouns and their usage, particularly in the workplace.

When referring to a singular human in the third person, English pronouns often imply gender. For instance, “he” pertains to a man or boy while “she” refers to a woman or girl. The practical resource website noted that such associations are “not always accurate or helpful”.

The resource website further said:

“Often, people make assumptions about the gender of another person based on the person’s appearance or name. These assumptions aren’t always correct, and the act of making an assumption (even if correct) sends a potentially harmful message – that people have to look a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are or are not.

“Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment, just as using a person’s name can be a way to respect them. Just as it can be offensive or even harassing to make up a nickname for someone and call them that nickname against their will, it can be offensive or harassing to guess at someone’s pronouns and refer to them using those pronouns if that is not how that person wants to be known. Or worse, actively choosing to ignore the pronouns someone has stated that they go by could imply the oppressive notion that intersex, transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people do not or should not exist.”

Personal pronouns are not necessarily private information. Below are examples of personal pronouns.

Those who identify as non-binary, gender non-conforming or genderqueer might choose the pronouns “they/them” instead of the conventional English language pronouns that imply gender.

But there are also the pronouns “ze / hir / hirs” [zee]/[here]/[heres], which are gender-inclusive and sometimes preferred by transgender, gender fluid, and non-binary people.

Tips for using & understanding non-binary pronouns

Non-profit organisation Kelowna Pride, based in British Columbia in Canada, offers the following practical advice when it comes to using and acknowledging personal pronouns:

Normalise pronouns

Try including your pronouns in email signatures or on social media bios to help normalise the idea that people shouldn’t assume someone’s preferred pronoun based on traditional gendering of a name. You can also include asking people’s Personal Gender Pronoun as part of ice breakers/go-arounds to start meetings.


Get in the habit of asking everyone – and not just someone you presume to be trans or non-binary for their personal pronouns. Make it as normal and as natural as asking for someone’s name.

Don't assume

Kelowna Pride says: “You can’t tell a person’s gender identity or pronouns based on how they look. Gender presentation isn’t the same as gender identity, and neither presentation nor identity are a indicator of what pronouns someone uses. The only way to know what someone’s pronouns are is to ask. Also, don’t assume that someone’s pronouns are fixed. Gender is fluid, and their pronouns may (or may not) change over time.”


Avoid making a big deal out of any mistakes when it comes to someone’s pronouns for misgendering them. Simply apologise and adjust your language moving forward. As Kelowna Pride says, making a fuss about mistakes can “force the trans/non-binary/genderqueer person to spend a lot of time and energy consoling you for misgendering them. The best apology is not doing it again.”

Non-binary greetings

Practice changing the way you address people. Opt for non-gendered language such as “folks,” “y’all,” “friends” etc. rather than “ladies” or “guys”.

Be an ally

Kelowna Pride says: “When you hear someone use the wrong pronouns for a mutual friend, correct them. Part of being a good ally to non-binary, genderqueer, and trans people in your community is helping other people get our pronouns right.” -


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