The Importance of Pronouns

What are pronouns, and why are they important?

Typically, when we communicate in English, we use pronouns to refer to ourselves and one another, such as “I,” “you,” “he,” or “she.”

To create and maintain an inclusive environment, it's important that we don't make assumptions about a person's pronouns. Instead, you can address people by their names or use their correct pronouns if you know them.

When someone tells you their pronouns, use them. Imagine what it would feel like to tell someone your name, and they insist on calling you something else--it can be offensive, degrading, or alienating, and this is why pronouns matter.

Office of Student Life & Activities | Intercultural Affairs

202-806-5990

Monday and Friday | 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM

Tuesday - Thursday | 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM

When You Assume...

We want Howard to be a place where people can safely be their authentic selves. If you incorrectly assume a person's gender, it may make the person on the receiving end uncomfortable. They may also feel like they don't have the space or opportunity to share their pronouns.

When we assume that a person should use certain pronouns, we encourage the idea that certain genders have to look and behave in specific ways. That's not an environment conducive to growth and learning.

Gender-Neutral Terms

They/them is a ‘gender-neutral’ pronoun which can be used for groups and individuals. They/them are pronouns that can you can use when you are not sure of what a person’s pronouns are.

Gender-neutral means that there is no gender associated with it. Try to use gender-neutral words when you are not certain of a person's gender. Remember, unless you've been informed of someone's pronouns, you are making an assumption, and therefore not certain.

A person who uses ‘she’ pronouns does not necessarily identify as a woman. A person who visually looks like a woman, in your opinion, does not necessarily use ‘she’ pronouns. This is why it is safest to learn a person’s pronouns before addressing them with a pronoun, or using their name until you know what their pronouns are.

Gendered Gender-Neutral
she/her / he/him they/them (there are many other gender-neutral pronouns, including xe/xem and zie/zir)
chairwoman / chairman chair or chairperson
mailman postal worker
policewoman / policeman police officer
saleswoman / salesman sales associate or salesperson
stewardess / steward flight attendant

Introduce Yourself

"My name is [blank], and I use [she/her] pronouns."

When we introduce ourselves using our pronouns, it prevents others from making assumptions. It also helps to normalize the respectful use of pronouns. We encourage students, staff, and faculty to mention your pronouns when introducing yourselves.

Correcting Mistakes

If someone uses the incorrect pronouns for you:

No one should ever be forced to share their pronouns. Instead, students, faculty, and staff may practice introducing themselves using their pronouns. The goal is that those who do not want to share pronouns will eventually feel safe and comfortable enough to do so. A further goal is that the environment is an inclusive one that allows for all pronouns to be shared and celebrated.

If you feel safe enough to do so, it is fine to correct someone if they use the incorrect pronouns for you.

If you find that someone refuses to use the correct gender pronouns for you, you may file a complaint with the Title IX Office. Gender-based discrimination is a violation of the Title IX law. Students, faculty, and staff may receive ramifications for encouraging gender-based discrimination.

 

If you've used the incorrect pronouns for someone else:

First, apologize. Then commit to avoid making the same mistake again, and hold yourself to that commitment.

Even if you didn't intend to misgender someone, the outcome still warrants an apology. It is about the other person's safety, not your feelings.

After you apologize, go on with the previous conversation. Although you may feel badly, drawing more attention to the situation could be embarrassing to the person you misgendered. It could also put them in the awkward position of feeling the need to comfort you, which is inappropriate and could cause them further psychological harm.

If you feel bad about the mistake you made, the best solution is to do the research to inform yourself better so you do not make the same mistakes again.

Here are three scenarios in which you may find yourself:

Scenario One:

You realize you've misgendered Taylor.

First, apologize directly to Taylor for using the incorrect pronouns. Then make a commitment not to repeat the mistake.

Then, continue using pronouns regularly to encourage the correct use of pronouns for others.

Scenario Two:

You accidentally misgendered Ryan.

Ryan has corrected you.

Your first step is to apologize to Ryan for using the incorrect pronouns. Then thank them for correcting you and make a commitment not to repeat the same mistake.

It is important to know that Ryan had no idea if you would react in a hostile way, and therefore took a big risk in sharing their pronouns with you. It can be exhausting to take such risks and educate others about creating a gender-inclusive environment.

It is your responsibility to do research, stay informed, and ensure that you are not misgendering others.

Scenario Three:

Leslie mistakenly misgendered Jordan.

You already know Jordan's pronouns, because Jordan told you in a previous situation.

If Jordan did not give you permission to share their pronouns, do not correct Leslie or anyone else if they misgender Jordan. Jordan may have come to you in confidence when they shared their pronouns with you. If you share Jordan's pronouns without their permission, you could "out" Jordan, putting them in a dangerous position. (To "out" someone is to share their gender or sexual identity without their consent, which could be harmful to their physical and psychological well-being.)

If Jordan gave you permission to share their pronouns publicly, you may correct Leslie.