Students walking through campus in the spring

A Guide to Pronoun Usage

What are pronouns?

Pronouns are used to refer to someone, and usually communicate information about someone’s gender. For example, if we say, “I wonder if she knows she left her water bottle in the classroom,” we would assume the person identifies as a woman. 

Why are pronouns important and what is misgendering?

Because pronouns indicate gender, and people often assume gender based on someone’s appearance, we sometimes use the incorrect set of pronouns. When we use a set of pronouns that indicate the wrong gender, that is known as misgendering someone. For example, we might say “he,” when the person uses “she,” or we might say “hers” instead of “theirs.” When this happens to a transgender person it can be unsettling, invalidating, and dehumanizing. If it happens over and over, or is being done on purpose or maliciously, it is an act of oppression against trans people. 

What if I am being misgendered?

The University supports transgender and nonbinary identities and has policies in place to address misgendering. The Pride Office can also provide students educational resources and support. If you are a student experiencing repeated or continuous misgendering by incorrect use of pronouns, please contact the Pride Office for support, a strategizing session in intervention, or more information on how to further educate others. If repeated misgendering continues, the Pride Office can also assist you with university reporting to the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance.

How do I share my own pronouns?

When you introduce yourself, consider including your pronouns. For example, “Hello, my name is Jamal, I use he/him pronouns.” When we share our pronouns in this way it serves as an invitation for the other person/s to share their pronouns with us in turn. It also lets others who may be in earshot know that sharing your pronouns is the norm. Lastly, it creates an inclusive environment where people know not to make assumptions about gender.

What if someone does not want to share their pronouns?

That’s okay. Providing an opportunity allows people the option to share, but not everyone is comfortable doing so. In these cases, it is best to forgo using pronouns to refer to the person and simply use their name instead.

What are some examples of pronouns beyond she/her and he/him?

The most commonly used gender-neutral pronouns are they/them. While many people grew up using they/them as a set of plural pronouns, it is now acceptable to use they/them as a singular pronoun as well. In fact, the Merriam-Webster dictionary declared “they” as the word of the year in 2019 and states that they is “used to refer to a single person whose gender is intentionally not revealed…(or) is nonbinary.”

An example of using they/them in reference to a single person is: “A student in my office needs to know if they have to fill out form 1219.”

Other pronouns have more recently been created, all in an effort to get away from pronouns that automatically gender people. Examples are: zi (pronounced zee), zir (pronounced zeer), zem (pronounced zem), zemself (pronounced zem-self); fae (pronounced fay), faer (pronounced fair), faeself (pronounced fay-self) or ey (pronounced aay), em (pronounced emm) or emself (pronounced emm-self). Below is a list of how to use these pronouns.

  • Ze went to the store to pick up milk.
  • Please give a piece of cake to faer.
  • Roxie is confident in emself.

Some people prefer not to use pronouns at all. Instead, they would like you to reference them by name. So instead of saying “She went to the game” you would say “Juanita went to the game.” This practice is also a good idea when you do not know what pronouns a person uses, find yourself accidently using the wrong pronouns or simply cannot recall what pronouns a person uses. Just use their name and you cannot go wrong.

What about people who say they use she/they or he/they pronouns?

This simply means you can use either set of pronouns for this person or use them interchangeably. They do not have a preference between the two options. An example for this case would be: “She thought she knew the answer, but now they are uncertain.”

What if I make a mistake?

We all make mistakes sometimes. If you make a mistake, it is best to briefly apologize and move on. Think about it like this, if you mispronounced or mistook a person’s name, you would simply say “Sorry, I meant to say Bob” and move on with the conversation. Bringing extra attention to incorrect pronoun usage can draw more attention to the fact that you misgendered this person and can be perceived as asking the other person to make you feel better about your mistake.

Gender neutral titling 

We use titling (honorifics) to refer to people in a more formal manner. However, traditional titling, such as Ms., Mrs. or Mr., indicate the gender of a person. There are gender neutral options such as Mx. (pronounced mix) or M. (pronounced em). 

For example, Mx. Jones went to Italy to visit the Vatican. If you are writing a letter or email that requires a formal tone, you could say Dear M. Jones, we hope that you enjoyed your time with us at our hotel. 

As not all people are familiar with gender neutral honorifics it might be helpful to use an asterisk notation to explain that you are creating an inclusive environment by using Mx. or M. since they are gender inclusive.

Putting inclusive practices into action

Find yourself continuously struggling to remember someone’s pronouns? Try practicing at home, enlist others (not the person who you are misgendering) to correct you, or try switching to using a person’s name instead. Pronouns are important, just like names. You would not allow yourself to continue mis-naming someone, so don’t allow yourself to continue misgendering someone. 

Please see additional ways below in which you can show gender inclusivity and your support of pronoun usage.

  • Put your pronouns into your email signature line.
  • Put your pronouns onto your name tag or badge.
  • Practice using neopronouns at home to ensure you get used to pronouncing and using them correctly.
  • If you hear someone accidently use the incorrect set of pronouns for someone, interrupt them with a correcting comment such as, “I think you meant ‘she’ rather than ‘he’,” or “Jiwong uses she pronouns.”
  • Use other language beyond pronouns to practice being inclusive. Rather than asking about someone’s husband or wife, ask about their partner. Use they/them in writing rather than he/she or s/he.
  • Instead of greeting groups of people with “ladies and gentlemen” use phrases such as people, everyone, ya’ll or folks.
  • Use gender neutral terms such as firefighter instead of fireman, or owner instead of landlord.

Further exploration

If you are interested in learning more about pronouns and gender inclusive language, please see the following websites below which offer helpful information:

The University of Colorado Boulder’s policy on Discrimination and Harassment states: “CU Boulder policy prohibits discrimination and harassment based on protected-class identity. Unfair treatment or intimidating behavior aimed at any member of the campus community based on an aspect of identity protected by CU Boulder policy is reportable to the university.” Gender identity, sexual orientation and gender expression are considered protected classes at CU Boulder.