Subsection6.3.2Pronouns and Correctness

A pronoun is a word (including I, you, me, he, she, and they) that refers to a noun, when it's unwieldy to keep referring to that noun by name. When pronouns refer to and represent people, pronouns are usually connected to gender identity, which is the internal, personal perception that one has about one's own gender. A person may identify on either end of the gender spectrum (man/woman or boy/girl), or in between or outside of it (see Subsection 6.2.2 and Subsection 6.2.5 for more). Using appropriate pronouns is as important as referring to a person by the correct name.

They As a Singular Pronoun.

Using appropriate pronouns, though, is complicated because gender-neutral singular pronouns are being debated actively at the moment, and, as we discuss above, many people are now arguing that gender is not even relevant in many of the circumstances in which we once emphasized it (for instance, how often is it really important to know whether the person in a sales position is a “saleswoman” or a “salesman”?). Debate over gender and pronouns is not new; people have been proposing gender-neutral pronouns since at least the mid-nineteenth century 6 . However, the need for adequate pronouns in English has become more pressing as trans people have become more visible and as the idea of gender identity has been discussed more openly.

People who identify as women typically use she/her pronouns, and those who identify as men usually use he/him pronouns. Individuals whose gender identity does not fit the binary sometimes use they/them pronouns, and—more generally—“they” is becoming increasingly accepted as a gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun.

Note6.3.2.Our Stance on “They”.

In this book, we use “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in circumstances when the gender of a person is unknown (for example, “Please ask each of the students what they would like for dessert”) or when that person identifies as neither male nor female (for example, “Do you know my friend Ari? They are a math major”).

Pronouns are important representations of people's gender identity. If you don't know what pronouns someone uses, simply ask them, “What pronouns do you use?” If you accidentally use the wrong pronoun, apologize, correct yourself, and remember for next time.

Please consider this section as a starting point rather than a comprehensive guide, and please continue to grow your awareness in your life and education outside this book! Taking courses in Gender and Queer Studies would be a good way to continue learning, as would getting involved in programs through your school's diversity center.

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