What’s in a Pronoun?: Third-Person and All-Gender Pronouns

This resource includes a guide to pronouns and gender-neutral pronouns, with an emphasis on addressing questions about using “they” as a singular pronoun. The fill-in-the-blank activity gives people a chance to experience how gender-neutral pronouns work in action. The speed chevruta activity provides an opportunity to practice pronouns as part of introductions and elicits empathy through the sharing of experiences of isolation and/or discrimination.

May 15, 2019

By Keshet

What’s in a Pronoun?: Third-Person and All-Gender Pronouns

Assembled by Dubbs Weinblatt, Essie Shachar-Hill, and Jacob Klein (May 2019)

Updated January 2023 by Chaim Ezra Harrison and Jay Smith

THE POWER OF LANGUAGE

We learn in Proverbs 18:21 that “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Jewish tradition teaches us that how we use language deeply impacts people’s lives. Referring to a person by their correct pronouns is a small but important way to affirm their identity.

WHAT’S A PRONOUN? 

Pronouns are words used in the place of nouns, and use is common in the English language to avoid repeating words or phrases. For example, instead of saying, “Moishe’s challah is amazing because Moishe uses Moishe’s own special recipe,” you could say, “Moishe’s challah is amazing because he uses his own special recipe.” Common pronoun sets are he/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs. Some may also use neopronouns like ze/zir/zirs.

Note: Although use of pronouns is a commonplace practice in our society, there are individuals who don’t use pronouns and prefer to go only by their names.

BUT ISN’T “THEY” PLURAL?

You likely learned that “they” is plural and only used for groups of people, making it grammatically incorrect to use for a single person. However, “they” has been used as a singular pronoun for centuries in the English language!

For example, Shakespeare, whose effect on the English language can’t be overstated, used the singular they in multiple works, including Comedy of Errors:

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me…”

“As if I were their well-acquainted friend (Comedy of Errors, Act IV Scene 3)…”

WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY “ALL-GENDER”?

The pronouns he/him/his and she/her/hers indicate the gender of the person being spoken about. However, there are times when you might not know this information. For example, if you found a wallet on the ground, you might say, “I should find the owner of this wallet. They must be looking for it.” In this case, you would use the pronoun “they” because the person you’re talking about could be of any gender. This is called the “singular they,” and some people use it as an all-gender option instead of “he” or “she.” For example, if Ari uses they/them/theirs pronouns, you might say, “Ari hosted an amazing Shabbat dinner last night! They made all their favorite dishes and even made the chocolate babka themself.”

Read more about all-gender pronouns here.

Note: Pronouns do not always define someone’s gender. For example, someone who uses she/her pronouns may identify as a woman, or she may identify as another gender. The only way to know someone’s gender and pronouns is if they share that information with you!

HOW DO I KNOW WHAT PRONOUNS TO USE?

Ask! A wonderful way to do this is to share your pronouns first, which indicates that you’re open to hearing others’ pronouns. It’s an easy technique to incorporate in meetings or other gatherings. You can say, “My name is Rachel, and I use she/her/hers pronouns.” It only takes a moment and helps all people in the space feel included. 

SHOULD I REQUIRE SOMEONE TO SHARE THEIR PRONOUNS WITH ME?

Instead of requiring that people share pronouns, we recommend modeling by sharing your pronouns first, especially if you are in a leadership role, and creating an opt-in space for people to share theirs. People who are exploring their identities may not want or be able to share. It’s an important balance to hold a space that encourages but not does not require pronoun sharing. We recommend that leaders model giving others the option to share pronouns by saying for example, “I invite everyone to introduce themselves and share their pronouns if they wish. My name is _____ and I use _____ [pronouns].”

A note on language: Language is human-created and has evolved over time. When we craft language that reflects ourselves in the world, we are drawing on a millennia-old human practice.

One example is the use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. It is an example of linguistic evolution in which an existing term expands its meanings to meet a need of the people who speak the language (similar to how the word “call” expanded to refer to using a telephone). 

Another example is the use of neopronouns, pronouns designed specifically to be gender-expansive. This is an example of linguistic evolution in which a community of people meet a need by creating a new word (similar to inventing the verbs “Zoom” or “Skype” to describe actions in our digital world.)

Similarly, an individual’s personal word choice for their identities and pronouns may change over time. Just as language evolves and shifts constantly on a larger scale, it ebbs and flows for individuals. You may feel that a word describes you at one point in your life and does not resonate for you at a later point. Or you may hear a new concept that reflects how you see yourself that you hadn’t heard before. Understanding and accepting the fluid nature of language helps to support, affirm, and make space for people to try on different words to express themselves.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?

On the most basic level, using people’s correct pronouns is about kavod (respect). IJust as we ask people’s names so we can refer to them correctly, using people’s pronouns is about honoring them as a person. Pronouns are not just words: they are a reflection of how people see themselves and how they want to be seen. When you use the correct pronoun for someone, you honor them by showing them that you see them.

WHAT IF I MESS UP AND USE THE WRONG PRONOUN FOR SOMEONE?

Mistakes happen! Transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive people do not expect perfection, only that you make an effort as you learn.

When you make a mistake, remember our tradition of teshuvah (repentance) and apologize for the error. A short apology is typically better than a long one because it doesn’t put the other person in a position to console you.

Statements like, “I’m sorry, but this is just so hard for me,” make the conversation about you, as opposed to the person who you misgendered. Instead, you can say something like: “As he said—sorry, I mean, as they said—latkes are superior to hamentashen, and I agree with them.”

Find more advice on correcting mistakes here.

WHAT ABOUT NEW AND NEO-PRONOUNS?

Many sets of alternative gender-neutral singular pronouns have been developed, such as xe/xir/xirs, ze/zir/zirs and fae/faer/faers. For some people, these pronouns are empowering and authentically express how they relate to their gender. You can see other examples and learn more here.

The newness of some of these words can feel overwhelming, and you’ll probably make mistakes. One thing you can do is practice. Websites like Practice with Pronouns are a good place to start. While it’s understandable to make mistakes as you learn, people also deserve be gendered correctly, and repeated mistakes can add up. Practice! Your improvement over time will speak for itself.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF A PERSON USES A COMBINATION OF PRONOUNS LIKE “HE/THEY” OR “SHE/THEY”?

It depends on the person.  Some people prefer interchangeable pronouns. Others  use aspecific pronoun in one context and another set of pronouns in another, depending on safety or comfortability. As a best practice, it’s best to ask the individual how they would like to be addressed. 

WHAT ABOUT HEBREW?

Hebrew is historically a grammatically-gendered language, with nouns, adjectives, verbs, and most parts of speech taking binary gender markers. There are many Hebrew speakers working to create gender-expansive forms of Hebrew for daily and ritual use.  We are still in a time of linguistic development, and there is not (yet) a single universally agreed-upon, gender-expansive grammatical form. However, there are several gender-expansive options:

  • Use nonbinary Hebrew: The Nonbinary Hebrew Project is a project to create a third, gender-expansive grammatical form in Hebrew. Their “grammar and systemics” and “applied uses” pages offer templates of how to offer words of blessing and engage in ritual moments in gender-expansive language. 
  • Alternate masculine and feminine Hebrew forms: Many nonbinary and gender-expansive Hebrew speakers find that alternating between gendered forms of Hebrew is an effective and meaningful way to express their genders. 
  • Use the Hebrew third-person plural masculine: Some nonbinary and gender-expansive Hebrew speakers use the masculine plural Hebrew forms (parallel to they/them in English) as a gender-neutral/expansive pronoun. 
Keshet

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