It’s All About the Pronouns: You, Me, Us, We

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How to ask for pronouns

By Dana C. Litwin, CVA (she/they)

Dana Litwin explains the evolution of pronouns and prefers she/they

What’s the big deal about pronouns these days? People write them on their nametags, bring it up in casual conversation, and there are all these emails and in the signature part, the person says “Bob Smith (he/him)” or “Sue Jones (they/them).” Why is it important to these folks to include pronouns in their introductions? 

The simple answer is… it’s about courtesy and respecting the way people want to be addressed. Someone using “they/them” as a gender-neutral term – or like me using “she/they” – is an authentic expression of their gender identity and personality. That way, it’s up to the person (and not others) to decide how they want to be addressed.  

Also, ideas about gender change with language, society and culture over time. The American association of “boys = blue” and “girls = pink” is relatively new (1940s) and came about as a marketing scheme. In the 1920s, pink was the masculine color, and blue was feminine! 

Pronouns evolve over time

Pronouns evolve, too. In English, “you, me, us, we, he, she, they, them, it” is the basic set. Pronouns exist in almost every language, and languages are always evolving (ask any high schooler doing a Shakespeare play), and so is the use of personal pronouns. “They/them” isn’t anything new – it’s simply the plural and singular gender-neutral pronoun in English. 

Related: Linguists Have Identified a New Language in South Florida 

Technically, contemporary English speakers are misusing the formal “you” (like “usted” in Spanish). Second person pronouns are the informal “thou” or “thine” (as “tu” is still used in Spanish). But to our modern ears, it just sounds better to say “you” than “thou.” Shakespeare’s English of the early 1600s is about as far back in time as we can go as English speakers and still understand it, and why it sounds funny to use “thou” in a current conversation (unless you’re at a Renaissance Faire or Medieval Times restaurant).

how to ask for a person's pronouns

I’m most comfortable with she/they 

As a GenXer in college in the 1990s I recall explaining to my father, Steve (born in 1939, always a smart and curious guy), when he asked me about the emergence (and my own use) of “they/them” by individuals – it’s the easy default for gender-neutral singular and plural pronouns. I happen to like the ring of “she/they,” as I haven’t been very “feminine” in my appearance for most of my life – I’m a classic tomboy but I am consistently seen as female – so it’s a balance of my gender expression.  

How we use language changes along with societies’ newly created ideas, inventions, names of things, expressions, slang, and all kinds of other factors. Like “LOL- speak” (AKA internet slang), or emojis and acronyms used in texting by most people today.

It’s ultimately about kindness, respect, and our common humanity

Because many people nowadays use different pronouns than what you might be expecting, it’s easy to get confused and embarrassed. But the simple solution is to ask, and to embrace the person’s answer – and their pronouns – with kindness and respect. Because respecting each other is good for society. Our common humanity is expressed as “You, me, us, we, thou, thine, yours, mine” and for all the triumphs and troubles in the world, we are all in “it” together. 

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