Pronouns FAQ

What are pronouns?  

Pronouns are words (outside of proper nouns – such as using someone’s name) used to speak about ourselves or other people, in the third person.

Examples include: “Where did shego?”, “What did theythink about the project?”, “How did hetravel here today?”, “Who did ze bring with hirself today?”

Examples using a proper noun/someone’s name would include: “What did Dr. Taylor say yesterday?”

We use pronouns frequently throughout our everyday life.

It’s important, both as part of building inclusive work, study, and community spaces on campus and adhering to the legislative requirements under the Ontario Human Rights Code, to use the correct pronouns for campus members when you know what they are.

Not using the correct pronouns especially for Two-Spirit, trans and non-binary people when they’ve told you what they are, is called misgendering and is deeply harmful and invalidating.

It’s important to create space for people to share how they want their pronouns to be used – and to allow for that to change over time. Sometimes people will update you or give you more information as they feel more comfortable or safe.

Some more information about pronouns:

1. Some people may use more than one pronoun

Some people will use more than one set of pronouns, which will often be communicated, for example, as: “they/she”, “he/xe”, “she/he/they” or “any pronouns”.

People who use more than one pronoun have different preferences around how they are used. For example:

  • Some may prefer a mix of each pronoun (e.g., “They are out of the office right now, but I’ll check in with him after he’s back. Did you send them an email?”)
  • Some might prefer the pronoun that is listed first but be okay with using any of the pronouns they listed. (E.g., “I use they/she pronouns. I really prefer they, but I am fine if someone uses she for me sometimes.”)

If a person communicates a preference for one of their pronouns, it’s respectful to pay attention to that, and not exclusively use a different pronoun in “the list” simply because you’re more comfortable with it.

2. Some may use or prefer different pronouns in different settings

For example: “I use he/him pronouns when I’m at home with my family, and I use xe/xim when I’m with my friends, or on campus”.

You may notice if you interact with someone in multiple settings/role (e.g. in the classroom, socially, when they’re functioning as an employee on campus) that they may use different pronouns with different people.

3. Pronouns are related to, but do not equal gender

Sometimes pronouns are tied to how we communicate and express our gender identity, but they aren’t the same thing as gender identity.

For example:

  • Gina may use she/her pronouns as part of communicating or expressing her womanhood. Using she/her pronouns may be a critical way that Gina, and other women communicate their gender identity.
  • However, Emily who is also a woman may use the pronouns ze/zim.
  • Emily and Gina may express their gender differently in a number of ways. They may wear different clothes, have different hair, have different mannerisms (etc.) as well as use different pronouns. Just because Gina and Emily dress, look and speak differently from one another, doesn’t mean they’re not both still women. Just because they use different pronouns from one another also doesn’t mean they’re not both still women.
  • Additionally, people who are not women may also use she/her pronouns. For example, there are many Two-Spirit, non-binary, gender non-conforming folks who also use she/her pronouns.

While pronouns can be an affirming part of communicating gender, they don’t automatically mean you know a person’s gender. Just like with other elements of gender expression – we don’t automatically know someone’s gender based on what clothes they choose or haircut they have.
 
For almost all roles on campus we don’t need to ask about or know someone’s gender. All we need to know is how to refer to someone respectfully.

4. Some may not use pronouns at all, and just choose to use their name

If someone communicates to you that they just want to use their name – then it’s respectful to only use that when referring to them in the third person.

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How and when to ask about pronouns

You cannot always tell what a person’s pronoun is just by looking at them. Helpful practices to support sharing and using pronouns include:

  • Sharing your pronoun when you introduce yourself, (e.g., “Hi, I’m Amanda, my pronouns are she/her and I’m a graduate student in this Faculty.”)
  • Sharing your pronoun in email signatures or in other correspondence.
  • Providing space for applicants, or other campus community members completing forms to have an optional space to share their pronouns.
  • Frequently downloading course rosters, as an instructor for any updated pronoun information.
  • If others do not share their pronoun (either by checking ‘prefer not to say’ in Quest, by not sharing in a meeting etc.) – do not ask directly for their pronouns.
     There may be a number of reasons they haven’t shared them – including not feeling safe to do so, or because they’re still figuring out what pronouns work best for them.
    • Do not guess a gendered pronoun (e.g., she/her or he/him) for the individual based on what you think they ‘look like’ they might use. Instead consider using the person’s name in lieu of a pronoun, or they/them as a singular neutral alternative.

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What do I do if I accidentally mess up someone's pronouns?

Quickly apologize, restate the sentence with the correct pronouns, and move on.

Dwelling on your mistake, profusely apologizing, or making a big deal puts the onus on the Two-Spirit, trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming individual to forgive and comfort you.

Avoid saying phrases such as “It’s just so hard for me. I’m used to using BLANK pronouns for you”, “You don’t look like someone who uses BLANK pronouns”, or “Well, you can’t expect me to get it right away”.

Explore more examples and recommendations on pronouns.org.

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Terminology

Preferred Pronouns

In the past, some people have referred to pronouns as “preferred pronouns”, but this implies that someone’s pronouns are a preference or up for debate. In almost all cases it is more accurate and respectful to drop the ‘preferred’ part of the phrase and say for example: “my pronouns are…” or “feel free to share your pronouns.”

There are some exceptions to this, for example when someone uses more than one pronoun and they may be sharing a preference for one or more of the pronouns they use. However, the important concept is that using the pronouns someone asks you to use is not a matter of preference, but a minimum standard of respect. 

They/them pronouns in the singular tense

Sometimes they/them pronouns are used to refer to two or more people, and sometimes are used singularly to refer to one person.

We commonly use they/them when referring to someone whose gender is unknown. For instance, “Someone left their wallet on the table. I wonder how I’ll get it back to them?”

Using they/them for any person who uses those pronouns functions in a similar way.

It’s also important to note, that not all non-binary or gender non-conforming people use they/them pronouns.

Neopronouns

While they/them pronouns are a form of gender-neutral pronouns, for some campus community members, they don’t accurately capture or reflect their gender identity, perception and expression.

Neopronouns are gender-inclusive pronouns that are used in place of he/she/they, used with the intent of transcending traditional notions of ‘masculine’, ‘feminine’, and ‘neutral’. Common examples include: xe/xem, ze/hir, and hir/hir.

While some of the more well-known neopronouns were developed in the 20th century, they date back to the 1300s. Neopronouns are used the same way any other personal pronoun is used.

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