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.
Assembled by Dubbs Weinblatt, Essie Shachar-Hill, and Jacob Klein (May 2019)
Updated January 2023 by Chaim Ezra Harrison and Jay Smith
Pronouns are words used in place of a noun, and are commonly used to talk about a person instead of using their name. For example, instead of saying, “Moishe’s challah is amazing because Moishe uses Moishe’s own special recipe,” you would typically say, “Moishe’s challah is amazing because he uses his own special recipe.” Common pronoun sets are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and ze/zir/zirs.
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.
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.
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)…”
On the most basic level, using people’s correct pronouns is about kavod (respect). In the same way 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.
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 duty of tshuvah (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.
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. Sites like Practice with Pronouns are a good place to start. Keep in mind that the person you’re speaking to appreciates most the effort you’re making to reflect their true selves back to them.