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Names and pronouns

November 12, 2021

With the general public becoming more educated about gender, the sharing of pronouns has become more normalized. While the use of they/them pronouns dates back to as early as 1386, society has only begun to recognize them more recently. 

Students used to only learn about she/her and he/him pronouns, but now they also learn about they/them and neopronouns, demonstrating how grammar has shifted with societal norms. Contrary to common belief, the use of they/them and all other pronouns is grammatically correct, according to the APA Style Handbook. This includes neopronouns, which are new pronouns used in place of “he,” “she” or “they” (e.g. xe/xem/xyr and ze/hir/hirs).

Although grammatical concepts have evolved, societal norms are still catching up. Teachers try their best to use students’ correct pronouns, but it can be difficult for students to correct them when necessary. This holds for trans student Hayden Dillon ’24.

“I feel like I often just don’t correct my teachers … it’s just harder to speak up against [them] because they’re more of an authority figure,” Dillon said. 

Although students may add their names and pronouns to Canvas and Infinite Campus, some have taken additional steps to ensure others recognize their identity.

“I changed my Google picture to the trans flag. It’s a sign for some people that [the name in my email] is not actually my name,” Dillon said.

Overall, as an English teacher, Kerri Barnhouse thinks the reason for the grammatical shift in pronoun usage is the normalization of identities beyond the gender binary. 

“There’s a way that somebody said was grammatically correct at some point, but we also know that times have changed and culture has changed,” Barnhouse said. “Our understanding of people has changed, and let’s allow [pronouns] to change with it.” 

While teachers make mistakes, Barnhouse feels they have their students’ best interests at heart. 

“Teachers work really hard to try to remember [students’ pronouns],” Barnhouse said. “Teachers remind each other about [pronouns]; people share different ways of having kids fill out different forms.”

However, it is not uncommon for an individual to unintentionally misgender another. Haley Jungles, Sex Health Instructor for United Action for Youth, proposes there is a simple way to manage this. 

“Ask for people’s pronouns. I don’t assume anyone’s pronouns if I don’t know [their] pronouns or haven’t asked yet. I automatically go with ‘them,’” Jungles said. 

Pronouns do not always correspond to gender, making it especially important to ask for them. For example, one may identify as male but use they/them pronouns. Jungles believes creating an environment that accepts and understands pronouns should start from a young age. 

“I don’t think [students] are ever too young to learn about pronouns. Everyone has pronouns—they need to understand what that means,” Jungles said.  

Along with educating students, West High Assistant Principal Maureen Head feels the school is responsible for creating an environment that welcomes everyone. 

“It’s our job to have a safe space for kids, to respect their humanity and gender identity, and to correctly pronounce their names,” Head said. “[It is] part of what makes them human, so it’s absolutely important.”

Head sees improvements administrators can make, including setting a positive example to normalize the sharing of pronouns.

“All of the administrators could do a better job with how we model. I’ve seen a lot of people with email signatures that include their pronouns,” Head said. “I just want a really small and simple way for teachers to start including [pronouns].”

Although West tries to create an environment that welcomes all, not everyone understands that pronouns and gender identity do not necessarily correspond. Joseph Polyak ’22, who uses he/they pronouns, sometimes feels conflicted about how others refer to them.

“Maybe I feel compelled to use [he/him pronouns], maybe I want to use [he/him pronouns]. I’m unsure,” Polyak said. “Addressing it can at times feel like sitting in a room across from an oppressively massive and unsettling oil painting.”

As a non-binary student, Andy Ham ’24 believes coming to terms with one’s identity is an ongoing process.

“Labels and names are not definite; you don’t have to stick with anything that you don’t want to stick with,” Ham said.

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