I am so excited to be serving as Circle K International Vice President. My name is Liz Sevigny, and my pronouns are they, them and theirs.
This article aims to share general information on pronouns and, more specifically, my personal experience with them. This article is not a callout to those who have used the incorrect pronouns previously. Nor is it a complete guide for all pronouns ever. I hope this can serve as a resource or starting point to those looking to learn more about pronouns.
Pronouns — in a basic, grammatical sense — are a way to refer to a person, group of people or something without directly referencing them with a name or title. Grammatically, pronouns should be used to refer to the subject of the conversation once established. Culturally, pronouns are becoming increasingly tied with personal identity and are more widely shared upon meeting new people.
This article will be somewhat long, so feel free to read some and definitely revisit it later! It may challenge some of your beliefs, and it may lead to more questions. When approaching this and similar content, please try to keep an open mind as these are the lived experiences of our members — and most likely your loved ones whether you know it or not.
Why are pronouns important?
As mentioned above, pronouns are becoming an important part of our identities as a culture. Using the correct pronouns for others is not only respectful (read: expected), but it signals to individuals that you validate who they are as human beings. If you’re working with college-age or younger individuals, it’s especially important you take the time to learn and practice asking, using and learning about pronouns because more and more children and young adults identify with pronouns that aren’t traditionally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth, according to a study in 2021.
If we aren’t accepting and actively showing our student leaders that we support them as people, we will not only see decreased engagement and activity in our Service Leadership Programs (SLPs), but we will also be doing harm to the very individuals it is our mission to serve.
What you need to know
Before learning how to use pronouns outside of what was taught in elementary English classes, I want to provide additional perspective on what pronouns are — and are not.
This is not an exhaustive list (read more on neopronouns here), but some of the most common third-person pronouns include the following:
- they/them/theirs – click here for more resources.
- she/her/hers – click here for more resources.
- xe/xir/hir/zirs/hirs – click here for more resources.
- he/him/his – click here for more resources.
- fae/faer/faers – click here for more resources.
They are listed in a series to show the different grammatical particles they can be used as. They/she/xe/he/fae are used as subject pronouns like “[Subject pronoun] like(s) to volunteer.”
Them/her/xir/him/faer are used as object pronouns like “Please email the meeting minutes to [object pronoun].”
Lastly, theirs/hers/xirs/his/faers are used as possessive pronouns like “Leadership is [possessive pronoun] favorite tenet of CKI.”
Another important concept is that pronouns do not equal gender (and gender does not equal biological sex). While certain pronouns often indicate a someone identifies as a specific gender, it would be wrong to make that assumption across the board — I personally recommend not making assumptions about peoples’ identities in general. It may be easier for a person to use certain situations to avoid lengthy or hostile conversations about their gender or perhaps they do not wish to share their gender identity for whatever reason. Additionally, some people choose to use multiple sets of pronouns because they better represent their identity. For example, a person may identify with the he and they series of pronouns, or someone may be OK with being referred to by any pronouns (more on this later).
That said, pronouns are subject to change. As individuals explore their identities, they may decide to change which pronouns best suit them. When these changes come about, a person may tell individuals directly, post it on social media or address it when the topic is brought up. While these changes may be confusing, the important thing is that we support each other on our journey of self-discovery.
Using they/them/theirs pronouns
In this section, I will share how to use they/them/their pronouns and some other gender-neutral terms. As a non-binary person, there are some gendered and non-gendered terms that I prefer over others. As mentioned in other sections, every person is different, and the terms I prefer may differ from another non-binary person you know.
One of the common criticisms of they/them/their pronouns is that the pronoun series only refers to people in the plural sense; however, the series has historically been used to refer to singular subjects and objects (see this article or this article or this definition section 2. a-c published by the Oxford English Dictionary).
In the section above, I covered the grammatical use cases for pronouns, but I will now give some example sentences for they/them/their pronouns that can be used for practice.
“Liz was elected International Vice President of CKI at ICON. I’m looking forward to their work as IVP!”
“Mauree is leading the workshop on recruitment and retention next month. Can you get them the Zoom information?”
“Someone is looking for Jisoo in the ballroom. Can you have them call the Conventions Chair?”
“I think Henry submitted this MRF, but there’s no name. Can you email them to make sure it’s theirs?”
An additional layer of those who identify with they/them/their pronouns is that they often don’t identify as either a male or female, thus gendered language also should not be used in reference to them. Terms like guys, girls/gals, ladies, gentlemen mr/miss/mrs, ma’am/madame/sir may be considered misgendering someone who doesn’t identify as male or female. People have different preferences on this, so it is just best to ask! Personally, I don’t like gendered language and prefer the following:
- Instead of “Miss/Madam,” just use my name.
- Instead of “Girls/ladies/guys,” use everyone/all/people or my personal favorite, y’all.
- Instead of “mom/daughter/sister” use parent/child/sibling.
For some, using they/them/their pronouns and ungendered language will feel like speaking a foreign language, and that’s OK! What’s important is practice, and eventually, it will become muscle memory.
“Help, I said someone’s pronouns wrong!”
After being socialized as female almost my whole life, I know how easy it can be to accidentally misgender someone by using incorrect pronouns. That said, it’s commonly preferred to avoid making correcting someone or oneself a huge scene.
When you or someone you know misgendered, it’s best to quickly apologize and correct yourself. “So yesterday, I was talking to her — sorry — them about the upcoming meeting.” If you don’t remember in the moment and the person doesn’t confront you, you could simply make it up to them by using the proper pronouns next time, or you could apologize to them privately and work on doing better. Note: if you apologize, that does not absolve you of all responsibility, and they do not have to forgive you. Make the apology meaningful by putting in extra effort and practicing using their correct pronouns.
What if I don’t know their pronouns?
We’re meeting new people all the time! Sometimes we don’t know the gender or pronouns of a person we’re meeting or being introduced to. A general rule of thumb is to ask, “Hey, what pronouns would you like me to refer to you with?” Sometimes, people aren’t public about their gender or pronouns so it’s best to not make assumptions. If you don’t know the person and are unable to ask for their pronouns, it’s best to default to the gender-neutral they/them/their set of pronouns. Personally, I think it’s easier to use they/them/their than it is to say “him or her.”
Once again, this is not a complete guide to pronouns, but it will get you started on the basics with some more advanced topics sprinkled in. Please always ask an individual’s preference over just taking and generalizing everything written here. If there are any questions, try doing research first! There are many educators out there that offer their resources for free and may have the answers you’re looking for. Check their sources and have faith in their personal experience.
Thank you for coming on this journey with me, and I hope we have a great year together!