Let’s talk about pronouns!
Many people, across many areas of the country, have questions about pronouns or need a comprehensive resource to refer back to. We’re providing pronoun info from our Jewish, Southern perspective - but it’s always good to look at what multiple people say about something! Additional resources on pronouns include www.mypronouns.org and the LGBT Life Center.
What’s a pronoun?
“Pronoun” is a grammatical term for a word that refers to a noun but can function by itself in a sentence. When it comes to people, pronouns are used to refer to someone instead of their name. Everyone has pronouns, and everyone uses pronouns.
For example, instead of saying, “Abby won the kosher barbecue cook-off because Abby used Abby’s mother’s secret sauce,” you would more likely say, “Abby won the kosher barbecue cook-off because she used her mother’s secret sauce.”
She/her/hers and he/him/his are some commonly used personal pronouns - but they are by no means the only personal pronouns that exist!
A gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronoun is a pronoun that does not associate a gender with the individual who is being discussed. Some languages have had gender-neutral or third-gender pronouns built into their grammar structure for a long time - but others, such as English, Hebrew, and Yiddish, do not. As notions of gender have evolved among people who use these languages, many forms of gender-neutral pronouns have emerged, allowing a wide array of gender and sexually diverse folks to feel seen and known.
When we don’t know the gender of the person we’re talking about, we often use gender-inclusive pronouns automatically. For example, we might say, “Whoever they are, I hope they’re having a good day.” However, we can know who we’re referring to and still use they/them/theirs pronouns; many folks who are nonbinary, trans, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, or gender non-conforming may choose to use they/them/theirs pronouns.
For example, we might say, “Simon taught their friends about Rosh Hashanah because they were the only Jewish person in their class.”
Gender-diverse folks might also choose to use neopronouns. Neopronouns are alternative sets of gender-neutral pronouns that have come into English use more recently. Some examples are ze/hir, per/pers, ey/em,or xe/xem.
For example, if Basil uses ze/hir pronouns, we might say, “Basil spent hir Shabbat hiking, cleaning hir house, and eating the challah ze made.” (Both “ze” and “hir” are pronounced with a long “e” sound, as in “here”.)
Someone might also choose to use a name as a pronoun. For example, if Cam uses Cam’s name as Cam’s pronoun, you might say, “Cam used Cam’s tools to fix Cam’s car.”
Many people also use multiple sets of pronouns. You might see someone with “they/she” listed in a bio, or hear someone say, “I use he/they pronouns.” This means that the person uses both sets of pronouns, and you can alternate between those when referring to them. Some people like the folks around them to use an even mix of their pronouns, and others use one set of pronouns in one context and another set of pronouns in another, depending on safety or comfort level. Everyone has a unique experience when it comes to their pronouns and the way those relate to their gender. The best approach is to listen to the way someone refers to themselves, or ask them considerately and directly - but only if the context seems appropriate. (Very few people want to be interrogated about their pronouns in, say, a business meeting.)
How do I know which pronouns to use for someone?
You can’t know someone’s pronouns unless you ask! It’s great to cultivate the practice of sharing your pronouns when you introduce yourself - this prompts others to share their pronouns as well. You can also include your pronouns anywhere your name is written down - such as a bio, an email signature, or next to your displayed name in a Zoom meeting. Sharing pronouns can combat gender stereotypes by showing that there is no “look” associated with a certain set of pronouns or gender identity.
Why is it important to respect people’s pronouns?
Using someone’s pronouns correctly is the most basic way to show that you respect their gender identity. Being referred to by the wrong pronoun can feel like being referred to by the wrong name - like the person talking to you doesn’t really know who you are, or doesn’t care enough to find out.
As Jews, we know that all people are created b’tzelem elohim - in the image of G-d. Therefore, we are tasked with respecting and honoring our family, community, neighbors, and even those we’ve never met. When we use the correct pronouns for someone, we make them feel seen, known, and welcomed.
What happens if I make a mistake?
If you accidentally use incorrect pronouns when speaking to someone or about them, the best thing to do is correct yourself quickly and move on with the conversation. An example might be, “She - oh, excuse me, xe - seems really happy that xe gets to spend Hanukkah with xir family this year.” The same goes for when you hear another person consistently referring to someone by the wrong pronoun. The best thing to do is to use the correct pronoun yourself - “Yes, that’s right, she does attend your shul” - or gently correct the person outright and move on with the conversation. (“By the way, Taylor uses she/her pronouns. Does she attend your shul?”)
Excessive apologies for using incorrect pronouns, especially ones that center yourself (“I’m really trying, you know”) can often do more harm than good. As Jews, we know the importance of teshuva, or repentance - but, much like we practice on Yom Kippur, the bulk of teshuva should be internal and reflective.
Gendered language extends beyond pronouns!
Here in the South, gendered language, especially honorifics like “ma’am” and “sir”, can be more common than in other areas of the country. It’s always best to avoid using gendered language when referring to someone unless you know what they are comfortable with. On the flip side, terms most commonly used in the South, such as “y’all” or “folks”, can be great ways to refer to a group of people while staying gender-neutral with your language!