The importance of pronouns, explained


As the issue of gender politics and trans rights becomes a bigger topic of discussion, you may have heard the word “misgendering” thrown around, or even been accused of it yourself. Misgendering is defined as the act of referring to someone, often a trans person, using a pronoun or word that conflicts with their gender identity. 

Misgendering can be more complicated when it comes to school. Teachers may be unsure of when it’s appropriate to ask for or use a student’s preferred pronouns, or be confused about what to do if a student is accidentally misgendered. Despite this, using the correct pronouns for students is important, as misgendering a trans student can be deeply distressing to them. 

“[Being misgendered] sticks in my mind… afterwards, and can ruin a whole experience for me, even if I’ve been having a great time,” Senior Ais Cook said. “I just can’t stop thinking about if the person just sees me as a girl.”

Although you may feel bad about accidentally misgendering someone, it’s important to avoid lengthy, unnecessary explanations. It can be deeply uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of a long speech voicing one’s heartfelt condolences or a rant about one’s continued struggle with “remembering all this new gender stuff.” 

“It can be very awkward when people over-apologize about it,” junior Bee Murdock said. “The best you can do when you mess up… is just quickly correct yourself and apologize, then move on. When people over-explain themselves, it can feel really uncomfortable for me- it’s bringing far more attention to it than necessary, which… only makes it worse.”

Even worse than accidentally misgendering someone, purposely misgendering someone for any reason can be devastating to a trans person, especially a teenager who may be figuring out their identity. Even if your opinions on trans rights are more conservative, correctly gendering a classmate or student is a common courtesy that should be extended to cis and trans people alike.

The most common argument made specifically against using they/them pronouns to refer to one person is simple: isn’t they/them in the singular a recent and grammatically incorrect invention? According to research done by Professor Dennis Baron, an English professor at the University of Illinois, versions of gender neutral pronouns have been in use in the English language since at least 1841. In Elizabethan England, Shakespeare himself used the singular they pronoun in several of his works. 

But even if the use of they/them as a singular pronoun was a new thing, why would that invalidate it? Our language constantly changes, and words adopting a new meaning isn’t uncommon. Baron refers to the word “you” as a good example of this. “You,” used in the singular, wasn’t considered grammatically correct until the 17th century. English grammar changes with the times. This is nothing new. 

But how do you avoid misgendering a person whose pronouns you don’t know, or are unsure of? Easy: just ask! 

“Asking names and pronouns at the same time is the best way I’ve seen it be incorporated into some classrooms,” junior Collin Kane said.  “Putting a pronoun question or preferred name in teachers’ usual ‘get to know you better’ google forms does wonders for making students feel more safe.”

Some teachers, at the beginning of the year, have students fill out “get to know you” google forms. These forms often ask about things like nicknames or favorite subjects. For trans students, though, using these forms to ask for pronouns has proved helpful.

However, it’s important to remember that it’s not always safe to use a student’s preferred name and pronouns in front of their parents. If parents are being contacted, teachers should check with students about how to refer to them. 

Respecting pronouns in school extends to foreign languages as well. However, gender being intertwined in the grammar of romance languages makes things more difficult. How gender inclusive language could be incorporated into foreign language classes in school is still a topic of discussion, and no official decisions from the GHS language department have been made yet. Still, students and teachers have their own opinions about how to respect student’s pronouns in the classroom. 

“Let’s say you wanted to be gender neutral, and you’re writing a sentence describing yourself. The way I would handle it is I would say to you, just pick a gender, and then describe yourself using that gender,” head of language department Mr. Basile said. “You cannot have a gender neutral because it changes the whole language.” Though if there were official changes made to any of the romance languages offered at GHS, that would be incorporated into those classes.

Some students, though, are taking a different approach:

“I used to switch between masculine and feminine pronouns and purposefully mismatch masculine and feminine endings when talking about myself, always making sure the teacher understood that it was intentional,” Ais Cook said. “Later, though, my teacher and I did some research together on what nonbinary native Italian speakers used as pronouns, and I stumbled upon the neopronoun “loi.” I still alternate between masculine and feminine endings for verbs and adjectives, but I now use Loi as my pronoun in Italian.”