Pronoun Primer

Gender is often presented as a binary- a choice between he and she, male and female. In reality, gender is a complicated, nuanced process of identity that is filled with diversity- and that’s a good thing!

One aspect of gender identity, which tends to get ridden with assumptions, are pronouns: words that are used to prevent redundancy of constant name repetition. Could you imagine constantly repeating someone’s name, without using “he,” “she,” or “they?” These words allow us to take a linguistic shortcut, by using a form of an abbreviation.

This becomes a contested issue when we consider that personal pronouns can be gender-specific and are almost always assumed. We use pronouns to create a culture where gender is binary and everyone is assumed to be cisgender, or identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth. Those who are transgender-spectrum identifying become alienated when faced with our culture’s current use of personal pronouns; having to take on the burden of educating people about their very existence, they risk the consequences of being misgendered. To be clear, it’s not bad to misuse a pronoun in and of itself, but it becomes bad when it means that someone doesn’t accept someone’s ability to self-identity, when it could mean facing violence, or being invalidated in their own experience of gender.

Pronoun Examples.

There are many more pronouns than just “he, him, his” and “she, her, hers.”

Here are a few examples of gender-neutral pronouns:

  • They/Them/Theirs:

    This is probably the most common of gender-neutral pronouns that you’ll see. Yes, you can use “they” to refer to a single person. No, it’s not grammatically incorrect (see the article on grammar below).

  • Ze/Hir/Hirs:

    This is noted to be the most popular genderless pronoun used in genderqueer spaces online. These pronouns are derived from “sie” and “hir,” but were changed to Ze and Hir because of their similarities to the German form of she and “Hir” being a feminine gender pronouns used in Middle English. “Ze” is pronounced as if saying the letter “Z” and Hir is pronounced as “here.”

  • Ze/Zir/Zirs:

    This is another derivative of Ze/Hir and instead stays with the common letter of “Z” for all forms of speech.

  • Ey/Em/Eirs:

    This pronoun form is known as Spivak and is a derivative of they/them/theirs. The idea behind this is to use the gender-neutral form of they in a way that is grammatically singular. They were originally created by Michael Spivak, for use in his books in which the character’s gender was unknown.

If you’re wondering how you would use gender neutral pronouns in a sentence, here’s a few examples using the pronoun choices above.

Ze wanted to go to Starbucks this morning.

Ey was wondering where Eirs cellphone is?

You should ask them how they got to go on that trip.

I was talking to Zir earlier today about Zirs new job in marketing.

Asking About Pronouns

Typically, cisgender men go by masculine pronouns and cisgender women by feminine pronouns. However, you can never assume someone’s pronouns just by looking at them- you should always ask what someone’s correct gender pronouns are. It might seem awkward or uncomfortable, but asking for one’s pronouns should be encouraged and doesn’t have to be awkward! “Being misgendered hurts to the very core, as our entire sense of self is being erased. Respecting pronouns is one of the most important things you can do,” Jules Sherred, transgender blogger and activist says.

To ask someone’s pronouns- just ask! It doesn’t have to be complicated; something as simple as “What pronouns do you use?” or “What are your pronouns?” is perfectly sufficient. In a group setting, you could go around, have people introduce themselves and specify what pronouns they use. You can also identify your pronouns. If you don’t know someone’s pronouns or don’t feel comfortable asking; you should default to the gender neutral pronouns “they, them, theirs,” to avoid misgendering.

Want to make it easier for folks to know what pronouns you use? Find ways to state it in your interactions. Here at YTH each staff member has an email signature, which identifies their preferred gender pronouns; that way, anyone who interacts with us already has a primer on what to call us.

More Information & Resources.

Looking for more information or resources on pronouns? Here’s a good place to start:

  • “What’s Your Preferred Gender Pronoun?” from Scarleteen


If you are a transgender-spectrum youth, make sure to also check out our app “they2ze,” which connects Bay-Area youth to inclusive care, health services, and resources that are all peer-reviewed. Learn more about the app and download they2ze for iOS and Android devices.

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