Proper use of preferred gender pronouns

While the English language is generally limited to two pronouns denoting male and female subjects, legal writing is even more inclusive and predominantly uses only the male gender pronouns “he, him, his.” Most contracts include language under headings such as Interpretation and Construction of the Agreement that reads, “Unless the context of this Agreement otherwise clearly requires, references to the plural include the singular and the singular, the plural and references to the masculine include the feminine and the feminine, the masculine.” Another common boilerplate is as follows, “Any word in the text of this Agreement shall be read as singular or as plural and as masculine, feminine or gender neutral as may be appropriate under the circumstances to carry out the parties’ intent.” However, said provisions may soon be outdated due to the growing trend of gender neutral pronouns being used as preferred gender pronouns.

Sexologist and Marriage and Family therapist Joanne Z. Flannery will give us a breakdown of the preferred gender pronoun movement and its importance.

What is a “preferred gender pronoun?”

A preferred gender pronoun, also known as a “personal gender pronoun” is the pronoun that a person uses when referring to themselves. The most popular pronouns are he/him/his/himself and she/her/hers/herself. However, in the interest of greater equality, the following gender neutral pronouns have been created: they/them/theirs and ze/zir/zirs. Some people prefer to only use their name in which case that should be respected.

How are gender pronouns assigned or chosen?

There is no correct method when it comes to choosing your preferred gender pronoun. No one should assign a gender pronoun for another person. Gender pronouns are chosen by each individual. When a person has a gender identity or gender expression that matches their assigned sex, the term cisgender is used. Generally speaking, cisgender people will feel comfortable maintaining the gender pronouns that society already uses to refer to them, such as he/him/his/himself and she/her/hers/herself. It is considered a privilege to not have to worry about which pronoun someone is going to use for you based on how they perceive your gender.

How do you know the correct pronouns to use when speaking to someone?

Share your pronouns with them and ask them their pronouns. It shows a great deal of respect to inquire regarding one’s preferred gender pronouns. It may seem embarrassing, at first, but it demonstrates that you desire to be gender inclusive and educate yourself on transgender topics, including staying current with terminology. Because the dominant discourse in our society is one of transphobia, expressing oneself as anything other than the assigned binary mainstream-accepted genders of male and female is brave and affirming.

What are your thoughts on neutral gender pronouns becoming mainstream?

I think that it is likely, but that it will take time. I currently cite my personal gender pronouns in my email signature and I let others know that I prefer she/her/hers after I state my name when introducing myself. Those two simple actions are a clear way to show my support for gender expression. It also sets an inclusive tone and one of respect for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. I would encourage more people to indicate their preferred gender pronouns when introducing themselves or after their signatures.

Even if you prefer not to announce your pronouns, the fact that new words are being introduced into the English language should be a salient concern for all citizens. It will probably only minimally impact legal writing, but the terms have already begun to be used colloquially.

Sarah D. Zigulich (preferred pronouns: she, her, hers) is an associate attorney at Anderson & Boback, LLC and practices in all areas of matrimonial and parentage law at the trial and appellate levels. She can be found at

Joanne Z. Flannery (preferred pronouns: she, her, hers) is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT) with a Master’s degree in Sexology. She can be found at

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December 2016Volume 22Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)