Opinions in Dialogue: Why are pronouns so important?

Can alternate use of these little words be harmful?

Pronouns other than she/her and he/him exist. PHOTO: Sharon Mccutcheon / Unsplash

by Madeleine Chan, Jacob Mattie, and introduction by Dev Petrovic

Incorporating the introduction of personal pronouns on day-to-day occasions has become increasingly normalized. The sharing of pronouns is evident in group introductions, social media bios, and Zoom usernames — the variations and platforms are endless. But why is this so important and how do pronouns change with language and dialect? Students Madeleine Chan and Jacob Mattie discuss.

Jacob: Establishing a strong sense of identity is something that, if not universal among all humans, has certainly been a challenge for me. A part of this is due to expectations on my behaviour, from both myself and those around me. As the past few years have brought a greater awareness of the ways in which we define our identities, the role of pronouns has also become increasingly prominent. However, I can’t help but feel that the focus on pronouns is a misrepresentation of the difficulties in defining oneself. As we fixate on proper usage of pronouns, we might be struggling to fit our identities into a language that isn’t equipped to properly handle them.

Madeleine: Pronoun politics, along with general identity politics, are definitely not simple. Even with growing acknowledgement of the use of personal pronouns other than she/her and he/him, it still isn’t such a widely known and accepted concept. However, I think that this growing use does allow for productive conversations around gender and identity that otherwise may not have been had. Personal pronouns, though just words we use to refer to one another, are still inevitably gendered. In allowing for people to choose how they want to be referred to, and in respecting those decisions, we create more acceptance for all expressions of self.

Jacob: I agree that the growing recognition of pronouns can help bring about discussion on gender and identity. Awareness of how broad, personal, and intricate the topic is — while possibly overwhelming at first — can be incredibly validating. If you don’t feel like you fit a certain standard, you don’t have to!

Personal expression is a crucial ingredient to overall well-being, but I still can’t quite shake one concern about pronouns and gender identity. If a person does not identify with the traits commonly associated with their assigned gender, it is well within their right to use a pronoun set and identify with a gender that fits them best. But taking ownership of these new labels may imply to others that the change in pronouns is necessary to be able to express themselves adequately. This could potentially reinforce harmful stereotypes around gender and further polarize perceived gender expectations.

Madeleine: The emphasis on the idea that a specific gender presentation equals specific pronouns can introduce a potential for further harm because it limits thinking around gender as binary and is rigid. However, gender and pronouns shouldn’t be perceived as the same thing — and they aren’t. Someone can use she/her pronouns while presenting and identifying as male, or someone could use they/them pronouns and present as hyper feminine. In fact, many people do. I, for example, respond to both she/her and they/them pronouns but definitely don’t identify as being “half-female” and “half-gender non-confirming.” While this nuance in identity may not be respected, acknowledged, and understood by all at first glance, it shouldn’t be discounted.

Jacob: The gender binary (the idea that people are only inherently male and female, and must act accordingly) is insidious. While there has been much more advocacy and support for the proper use of pronouns, there is a lack of education about what they really represent. Many resources provided to the general populace focus more on the proper usage of pronouns, rather than why they are important to those who use them. However, instead of imposing pronoun conventions as rules for people to follow, their normalization can more likely come about from a sense of empathy and understanding towards those affected. After all, neutral pronouns like “they” and “them” have been used to refer to people for much longer than this issue has been at the forefront of public awareness. This is hardly a new grammatical concept. The real work to be done is in recognizing the importance of pronoun usage, rather than how to use them.

Madeleine: Something that helps in recognising the importance of non-normative pronoun usage is including them when introducing yourself, in social media bios, in email signatures, and any method of digital or otherwise identification. This not only normalizes the idea that not everyone’s pronouns align with how they are perceived, but also does not ostracise gender non-conforming folks in their declarations of personal pronouns. 

It is interesting how we put so much importance on pronouns, though. In the grand scheme of creating space for all expressions of identity, they really shouldn’t matter. Despite this, it is such a prevalent thing in many languages, and not just English. French, German, and Russian among others all have gendered pronouns, they even go as far as to have gendered words for items as simple as a faucet. Many other languages, however, are essentially genderless and don’t have gendered pronouns or nouns, such as Estonian, Finnish, and the many varieties of Chinese. I guess with English, because gendered pronouns are such a foundational part of the language, we cannot simply write them off as unimportant when they do have such a large impact on how we live and interact.

Jacob: I’ll add Indonesian to the list of non-gendered languages. I don’t have as much experience with the language as I’d like, but dia seems to be a generic term for talking about someone else, regardless of their identity or gender. English strikes me as odd in comparison to French or German though, as we don’t associate objects with genders. We use neutral pronouns for anything inanimate but use gendered language for anything that we humanize — be that ourselves, our peers, pets, or objects of affection. 

Of course, our language has grown from millenia of evolution, and to remove something so foundational as pronouns is a dramatic proposal. But as we shift away from the default of binary gender identities, we need a wealth of pronouns to fill the spaces in between. I’m excited to see the new ways in which people will define themselves but as the quantity of pronouns increases, so too does the likelihood of being mislabeled. The implication here is that we will need to be more deliberate when referring to other people. When talking about someone who might not be able to represent themselves, it is especially important that we be careful with the words we use to describe them — slowing down to use their appropriate pronouns might be a great way to do this.

Madeleine: It ultimately boils down to respecting people and their identities. Pronouns and pronoun use are definitely not simple things, and I don’t think they ever will be. However, we can get more used to the fact that they aren’t static, both for individual people and in concept. Identity is a fluid, wonderful thing that can’t, and shouldn’t, be tamed by getting too entrenched with pronoun use, but enhanced by the possibilities with it.