(Important) Parts of Speech

Using pronouns and collective nouns

The smallest words can have the biggest impact

We need to talk about him, her, us, you … we need to talk about pronouns (and collective nouns, too).

Words are important to me. They’re my play, my pleasure, and my profession.

My author tagline is “Stories to make you smile” – obviously I don’t want my words to hurt, even unintentionally.

Which is why awareness is important.

The world has changed. Gender matters less, and more, than it ever did before.

You shouldn’t assume your doctor will be a man, and you shouldn’t assume your nurse should be a woman.

More of the world is co-ed.

And society is catching up with the reality that gender is not binary.

When we make assumptions about gender – when our language contains and perpetuates these assumptions – we can cause confusion and hurt, sometimes without meaning to.

This might be where your stomach starts knotting up and you think, “That’s the problem – I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but what if I do by mistake?” Well, here’s the good news – it’s not that hard to do it right … or at least to do no harm.

Here are some steps you can take:

Lead by example

List your own pronouns in your email signature, in your social media bios … wherever they might help people. This is particularly useful if your name doesn’t clearly indicate your gender – “Tudor” anybody? – but is really a great practice no matter what.

This is how my email signature looks:Tudor Robins email signature.

Respect other people’s pronouns

They took the time to tell you. They’re doing it to make everybody feel more comfortable. I (hope) you wouldn’t question their name when they introduce themselves (although, again, from experience, it happens – people actually think I’ve made a mistake when I tell them my own name), so don’t question their pronouns.

Think ahead

Most of us are a little nervous when addressing groups anyway, so don’t wait until the moment you’re facing a group of people to think of how to address them. You can start breaking old habits now. Instead of automatically going to “guys” or “ladies,” practice saying, “everyone” or “friends” or “team.” If you’re talking to a smaller group – maybe your child and a schoolmate, instead of asking, “What would you boys like for lunch?” you can ask, “What would the two of you like for lunch?” If you think about gender neutral language beforehand, it becomes second-nature, sounds completely normal, and could be all that’s needed to help somebody feel more secure and welcome around you. Here’s a post you might find helpful.

Mistakes happen

Please note, I don’t want to put myself forward as an authority here – and if you want to do some more reading on your own, this is a good article – but the most consistent advice I’ve heard is, don’t make it a huge issue. By going into long apologies, and trying to explain yourself, you put that person in the position of having to comfort you, and you also risk getting flustered and actually making it worse. It’s very respectful to simply, and clearly, change to the correct word, then make every effort not to make the mistake again. Here’s an example:

Mistake: “I was telling Kim here that she should order chocolate cake.”

Correction: “I was telling Kim here, that she … he … should order chocolate cake.”

What not to do: “I was telling Kim here, that she … oh my God, Kim, I am so, so sorry and I really hope you can someday forgive me, and I assure you I’m actually a good person, and I feel just terrible …”

The same would hold true for a group. If you slip up and say, “Hey guys, I’m really happy to see so many of you out today,” you can either say, “Hey guys … everybody … I’m really happy to see so many of you out today,” or you can just make sure the next time you address the group you use “everybody.”

Some of the smallest words in our language can have the biggest impact if they’re used with care and empathy. I hope this post helps explain how.

Please feel free to reach out to ask me any questions, offer any further advice, or tell your own story.

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