Different ways of referring to people have developed over time, including using they/them as a designated singular pronoun for one person. Most people have had trouble working out the nuances of referring to people with pronouns other than she/her and he/him.
While you may have grasped using they/them or zie/zim as pronouns for people who don't want to use she/her or he/him, encountering someone who uses no pronouns at all may seem a little confusing at first
So, how do you refer to someone with no pronouns? The easiest way to refer to someone who does not use pronouns is to refer to them by their name every time you mention them. For example, "Sarah said…" instead of "they said…" every time that you need to say that Sarah said something. Another option when talking about someone who doesn't use pronouns is simply using the second person if they are there with you. For example, you can say "you said…" instead of "they said…" or "Sarah said…" whenever you need to describe the person saying something.
It's essential not to substitute other pronouns if someone has told you they do not use pronouns. It can be hurtful to people if you use pronouns that they don't align with, and it can even trigger gender dysphoria, which is a painful feeling of not being seen for the gender or lack of gender that one aligns with.
Why Would Someone Not Use Pronouns?
If you've encountered people who don't use pronouns before, you might be wondering why someone would choose not to use pronouns at all. People have many reasons for not using pronouns.
Someone may feel that no set of pronouns correctly describes them, and they would rather use no pronouns at all and have people refer to them by name or in the second person.
Or, they might like a particular set of pronouns but not like explaining to people how to use the pronouns if they are less commonly used pronouns.
Someone may be trying out different pronouns and working to find the one that suits them best and may want to use no pronouns at all until they figure it out.
Finally, someone may simply not want to use pronouns because they do not align within the gender system and do not want their gender acknowledged in any way.
Do I Really Have to Respect Their Pronouns?
While changing our verbal habits can be a challenge, it is essential to respect people's pronoun choices.
When the wrong pronouns refer to someone, they feel disrespected and invalidated.
If someone asks you not to use pronouns when referring to them, you must respect this.
If you are confused about it, you can ask them if it's okay for you to ask questions about it. But beware that some people may not feel like explaining their pronoun choices to you, and they do not owe you an explanation.
How Do You Ask Someone About Their Pronouns?
It's pretty easy to ask someone what their pronouns are and incredibly important to do so.
Even if someone seems like they would align with she/her or he/him, they may not, and to respect them, you need to ask what pronouns they use. Simply say, "I'm not sure I know what pronouns you use" or "what pronouns do you use?" and then respect their answer.
Many people prefer that you ask what pronouns they use rather than what pronouns they prefer because pronouns are not really about preference. They are simply about what words the person will be referred to by.
How to Get Used to Not Using Pronouns
At first, it may feel like you're saying the person's name quite a lot if they do not use pronouns.
However, it will become second nature only to use a person's name or the second person to refer to them with time and practice.
What to Do if You Mess Up Someone's Pronouns
You will inevitably make mistakes when learning to use new or different pronouns for someone or learning not to use pronouns at all. We all slip up when we are learning, and it's okay to make mistakes.
However, it's important to know how to respond when we mess up because it can be very hurtful.
The most significant thing is to apologize as soon as you catch yourself making a mistake.
If someone points out to you that you used the wrong pronouns for someone, or if you catch yourself doing it, the first thing you should do is genuinely apologize. You can say something like, "I'm sorry, I just realized I used the wrong pronouns for you. I'll do better in the future," or "Oops! I used the wrong pronouns. Sorry about that."
If you catch it early enough, you can also correct yourself, simply restating the sentence with the correct pronouns immediately.
It's crucial when apologizing that you don't make a big deal out of it. If you freak out and say, "Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry, I can't believe I messed up your pronouns, I'm a terrible person!" it draws attention to the fact that the person is using different pronouns and can make them feel like a burden.
It's also essential that you do not make excuses while apologizing. You should avoid phrases like "I'm sorry, but it's just so hard to use your pronouns" and "it's just so complicated…" because this makes it seem like the person is asking too much from you, and it may make them feel like you are reluctant to use their pronouns properly.
Recap: Referring to Someone With no Pronouns
Even though it can feel overwhelming (at first) to figure out how to refer to someone with no pronouns, respecting people's pronoun choices is essential.
Appropriately referring to someone with no pronouns affirms their identity and allows them to feel comfortable and respected around you