What are pronouns?

July 24, 2023

You’ve probably noticed lately that more and more people are including their pronouns on their email signatures or LinkedIn profiles, and you may have even started to this yourself.  But a lot of people I speak to are still not entirely sure why this is happening.

I’d really like to break this down for you and give you more information, so you can make your own mind up if this is something you want to get on board with too…


Where to begin?

Very simply, pronouns are the way in which we speak about someone in the third person.

Time to go back to school…

Singular first-person pronouns

“I am eating a cake. I made the cake myself. The cake is mine. Now watch me eat my cake.”

Singular second-person pronouns

“You are eating a cake. You made the cake yourself. The cake is yours. I watch you eating your cake.”

Singular third-person pronouns (these are the ones to pay attention to)



“She is eating a cake. She made the cake herself. The cake is hers. I watch her eating her cake.”



“He is eating a cake. He made the cake himself. The cake is his. I watch him eating his cake.”



“They are eating a cake. They made the cake themself. The cake is theirs. I watch them eating their cake.”


Wait a minute, Katie!

I can’t cope with They/Them for a person, it’s a plural thing, isn’t it??

Yeah, it’s an argument we’ve all used on this learning journey. It’s easy to assume that’s true. But we use they, them, and their in the singular all the time. Think about it.

You find a beautiful cake in the kitchen at work. You might ask:


Whose incredible cake is this?

Where are they now?

Should I eat their cake?

Will it upset them?


You wouldn’t assume the gender of the cake owner, and asking these questions does not assume there are multiple owners (plural). We are using these terms in the singular, and we can easily do it!


Remember, as Destiny’s Child once wisely said… “Say my name, say my name”

Sometimes, you can use no pronouns at all, and simply use a person’s name.

“Katie is eating a cake. Katie made the cake. The cake is Katie’s. Now watch Katie eat the cake.”



Why do they matter?

Our language has evolved in such a way that pronouns are usually gendered.  But the trouble is we can’t really tell what a person’s gender is just by looking at them, at least not without offending people some of the time. You see, until we actually ask someone, it’s only ever our assumption about their gender, based upon what we see.  And their gender resides between their ears and not between their legs, so it’s impossible to know for certain until we’re told.  Just like you wouldn’t make up a random name for someone just by looking at them, you shouldn’t decide what a person’s pronouns are either.

Worse still, if you’re told a person’s pronouns and you actively choose to ignore them, you could be contributing to a hostile environment for that person. A small effort from you can mean a great deal to them.

So, the overarching guide for what pronouns to you use for someone is this…

Whatever they ask you to.

And if they aren’t forthcoming? Introduce yourself, including your own, and ask how they would like to be referred to. And if they give you their name only – then go with that.

Hello, my name is Katie and I use the pronouns she and her. How would you like me to refer to you?

Remember, you call them whatever they ask you to. No discussion or comments. No opinions or pulling faces. Accept it and move on with whatever you wanted to talk to them about.


Wouldn’t it be easier if we just made pronouns mandatory?

Oooh – great question. And I can see why you might think that. Because that’s easy when we’re comfy with how we want to be referred to. And it would certainly take a lot of the effort and awkwardness out of things for us, right?

Well, this is where we need to pop our allyship hats on for a sec. Because we know that gender is complex and nuanced. And not everyone feels comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth, or “outing” themselves as gender fluid or non-binary in all situations. So, making the use of pronouns mandatory might put people in a super uncomfortable or even terrifying position. Do they out themself to you right now, or face you forever misgendering them at their own request. No thank you.

Instead, explain to people why you are choosing to state your own, and why you request them from others. Educate people who are interested and demonstrate how they can get onboard with it if they choose. The more you normalise it, and create spaces where everyone who wants to is able to, the more people will feel safe to do the same if they wish.


What if I get it wrong?

Yup, this will probably happen. If you didn’t do it intentionally, you can make a genuine apology and move on. You’re human. Then, make every effort not to do it again (and the embarrassment alone will make this stick in your mind so you probably won’t!).

If you did do it intentionally, there is not a great deal else I can tell you. That’s yours to sit with I’m afraid. You might want also want to watch this space for my article on Transphobia too…


Acts of allyship you can start TODAY:


  • Introduce yourself using your name and your pronouns as standard
  • Make it ok to use them or not use them
  • Explain to someone why you do it if they don’t understand
  • Add them to your Zoom name or email signature so people know in advance, and that you understand why they’re important
  • Never assume you know a person’s gender, and if you do need to know it for any reason, ask them!


If you enjoyed reading this article, you can find more content from Katie Allen on her website HERE, and you can sign up to receive her regular newsletter filled with tips, advice, and free content HERE.