Understanding pronouns

What's all the fuss about pronouns? He, she, and they are words we have been using for a very long time in the English language.

Perhaps the most immediate way gender is expressed in our daily lives is through the use of pronouns. Used in discussion, words like “he/him” and “she/her” convey information about a person’s gender identity.

To reflect our growing understanding of gender identities, our vocabulary has expanded to include gender-neutral pronouns to refer to persons with nonbinary identities. The most common of these is the singular use of “they/them." Someone whose gender identity differs from what they were assigned by birth may prefer “they/them,” another pronoun or none at all.

If you ask Merriam-Webster, the singular use of “they” is here to stay. The company added the gender-neutral, singular usage to its definition of “they” to its dictionary in 2019, citing research that found singular references dating back to the 1300s (Trammell, 2019).

Today, awareness of these pronouns has reached the mainstream. Nearly one in five Americans knows someone who prefers a pronoun other than “he” or “she,” according to the Pew Research Center (Geiger & Graf, 2019).

The research also revealed an age gap when it comes to overall awareness. The vast majority of respondents ages 18 to 29 (73%) noted that they were at least a little familiar with the use of gender-neutral pronouns. The number dropped to less than half for respondents 65 and above (Geiger & Graf, 2019).


It’s not easy to navigate the new frontier of gender-neutral pronouns. Maybe you’re wondering what it’s all about or if it’s really necessary to modify how we refer to one another. This article covers the basics and explains why using people’s preferred pronouns is a simple matter of curtesy and respect.


The Pew Research Center found a wide disparity between a person’s political party affiliation and their comfort level with gender-neutral pronouns. Find out more about that phenomenon.



Geiger, A.W., & Graf, N. (2019, September 5). About one-in-five U.S. adults know someone who goes by a gender-neutral pronoun. Pew Research Center Fact Tank. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/05/gender-neutral-pronouns/

Kaur, H. (2019, October 16). Why it matters what pronouns you use to refer to people and what to do if you slip up. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/16/us/preferred-gender-pronouns-explainer-trnd/index.html

Nunberg, G. (2019, August). Opinion: Even a grammar geezer like me can get used to gender neutral pronouns. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/06/744121321/even-a-grammar-geezer-like-me-can-get-used-to-gender-neutral-pronouns

Trammell, K. (2019, September 18). Merriam-Webster adds the nonbinary pronoun 'they' to it's dictionary. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/17/us/merriam-webster-nonbinary-pronoun-they-trnd/index.htm

Gender Identity Gender identity icon Our core sense of who we are as a man, a woman, a mixture of both, or neither.

Gender Expression Gender expression icon How we show up in the world through choices like clothing, hair style, mannerisms or tone of voice.

Attraction attraction icon How we feel toward others sexually, romantically and/or emotionally.

Biological Sex Biological sex icon Physical attributes such as reproductive organs and genitalia, chromosomes, genes and hormone levels.

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