Why it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because I Never Heard that Word Before!
In conducting my interviews, many people said that they have the most trouble getting pronouns right when someone wants to be called third-gender or “neutral” pronouns. It makes perfect sense that these are the hardest, because they are words that are not part of standard English. On another hand, we all have experience successfully incorporating new words into our vocabulary. For example, there's text (as a verb), rip (as in digital music), and download. And new coinages are not limited to the technical: there’s also queer, genderqueer, Islamicist, and green-washing. We’ve even done it before with pronouns! Several generations of us are now accustomed to seeing s/he in print (even if we still can’t agree how to pronounce it), and many of us use “they” singularly to talk about a hypothetical third person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant.
The moral is, it just takes practice. See above for some ways to practice getting someone’s pronouns right. In addition, you can try this:
Exercise: Third-Gender JournalingWhy it’s Hard to Get Pronouns Right: Because You’re Just Not Trying
This works especially well if you already keep a journal. Continue writing about whatever it is you usually write about, only use gender neutral pronouns – for everybody. You’ll be surprised how quickly they flow “naturally” in your writing. Then it just takes a little getting used to, to use them in speech.
Lots of people reported to me that they get pronouns right almost all of the time, except when they’re tired, busy, frazzled, or thinking about something else. This is of course unsurprising. And yet when I think about my work week, and consider how much of the time I feel a little bit frazzled, I realize it’s not okay with me to be messing up on something so important so much of the time!
If you tend to mess up someone’s pronouns when you’re stressed out or distracted, it communicates that treating that person with respect is not your top priority in that moment. It also implies that calling them the right pronoun is not your default, but rather you’re having to consciously remind yourself to use the right pronoun every time.
If this is your pattern, I suggest the following:
- Take care of yourself! It’s not cool that you’re multitasking so hard that you don’t have the energy left to be conscious of your words. Take a day off. Get a massage. Take a walk. At the very least, make sure to take all your lunch and coffee breaks. You deserve it.
- See the motivation and commitment exercises above under “Why Pronouns Are Important.”
- Continue to the next section … there may be more behind your slip-ups than general overwhelmed-ness.