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"No pronouns please" was the first line in the academic's bio after their name—it was included in an invitation to attend their presentation. No other data.

What if you slipped and used a pronoun when you were addressing them? How could you handle it?

It turned out after the event that the person self-identifies as non-binary.

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    I assume that "no pronouns" actually means no "gender specific pronouns". In other words, don't write things that imply my gender.
    – Buffy
    Mar 24 at 21:56
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    @Ran Now you've actually been to the event, and it's clear that neither of the answers really fit the bill, please could you answer you're own question with your experiences? This would have confused me too, and I consider myself quite up to date in social etiquette.
    – Clumsy cat
    Mar 25 at 8:32
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    @Buffy I doubt that. There are a significant number of non-binary people who genuinely prefer that people not use personal pronouns in reference to that person. In such situations it would generally be preferred to choose your phrasing so as to avoid the necessity of personal pronouns, or to use the person's name. It's an unusual choice, and one that often doesn't come naturally, so I (as a non-binary person, albeit one who does use pronouns, they/them) am sure anyone who makes such a request will understand that even people acting in good faith will sometimes make mistakes
    – Tristan
    Mar 25 at 16:05
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 27 at 19:19

8 Answers 8

53

First, saying “no pronouns please” is such a vague request that I wouldn’t even know how to begin to comply with it. So I wouldn’t worry much about “slipping”. I respect people’s wishes when they make requests of me about how to refer to them, but I need to understand the request first in order to comply.

Second, based on your clarification, what I’m guessing happened here* is that the academic was filling a web form in which they entered their presentation details (title, abstract and so forth), in response to a request from a seminar organizer. That web form has fields to fill for a name, bio, and apparently pronouns as well. The academic didn’t know what to write in the pronouns field, or perhaps is opposed to the inclusion of pronouns as part of one’s description of who they are, or simply misunderstood the question, so they wrote “no pronouns please”. This ended up through some automated process as an event listing (sent as an email or displayed on a departmental seminars web page) that shows “no pronouns please” appearing after the academic’s name, with no context to indicate what that’s supposed to mean.

To summarize, this seems to be nothing more than a small misunderstanding. I would treat this person as I treat any other person who hasn’t expressed a special wish to be referred to in some specific way, and not spend time worrying about it.

* Edit: My guesses turned out to be wrong. Oh well, it happens. Whether that means the above answer is worthless or still interesting is in the eye of the beholder. Feel free to vote according to your opinion on this issue.

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    That makes sense about the automated form; however, I have just learned a new piece of information about the presenter: they are a transgender man. Do you think this is related to their choice of avoiding pronouns altogether? I feel it is. This makes me even more apprehensive about misgendering or offending them. Ugh so many hoops to jump these days.
    – Sam
    Mar 24 at 19:47
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    @Ran I don’t know what to make of this information, sorry. It could be a misunderstanding as I said, or someone trying to send some message that they didn’t realize is more cryptic than they intended. Anyway, just treat them with the same respect that everyone deserves to be treated with, and I’m pretty sure you’ll be fine.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 24 at 21:36
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    Which part is confusing? "No" or "pronouns"? Mar 25 at 20:18
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    @user3067860 do you even know what a pronoun is? There are over 100 pronouns in English. Anyway, if you disagree that “no pronouns please” is a vague statement, I welcome your downvote.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 25 at 20:49
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    @IMSoP sure, I learned something new, and the speculative guesses in my answer turned out to be empirically wrong. That happens a lot with academia.se answers and doesn’t necessarily invalidate the answer. The fact is, the guesses in my answer are still plausible, and the answer still seems relevant to me. The new thing that I learned is that “no pronouns please” can mean a request to not be referred to using a pronoun. It can still also mean other things, and I’d still say it is objectively a vague request given today’s cultural context. You’re free to disagree of course.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 27 at 15:13
37

As a non-binary person (albeit one who does use pronouns - they/them), this is not a common choice, but neither is it terribly unusual (it's probably about as common as someone requesting the pronoun it, and both are much less common than a non-binary person requesting they/them pronouns, one of the more common sets of neo-pronouns, or a mix of pronouns).

In such situations it would generally be preferred to choose your phrasing so as to avoid the necessity of third person pronouns, or to use the person's name. This of course does not come naturally to many people, and it usually takes a lot of practice before people can do so without slipping up fairly often.

Regardless of what specific pronouns (or lack thereof) a person has requested, best practice if you make a mistake is usually to simply correct yourself and continue. Making a big apology, either at the time or afterwards can draw attention to the mistake that third parties might otherwise have missed, or feel like you're putting pressure on them to assuage your guilt.

As this is an especially uncommon request, the person who made it will doubtless be used to people slipping up, and will be aware that this will happen more often than with someone making a more common one.

All reasonable non-binary and trans people I know do not generally begrudge the mistakes of people who make a good-faith effort to use our pronouns, and so you likely have nothing to worry about if you do make a good effort to avoid pronouns even if you do occasionally slip up.

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    +1, particularly for the final paragraph. This has been my experience too. If your error comes across as part of some guerrilla campaign to undermine them, their gender, and their identity in general, you might get some push-back, but earnest mistakes (of which I have made a few) are typically met with patience and compassion. It's no better nor worse than accidentally getting someone's name wrong. Mar 26 at 9:34
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    "it would generally be preferred to choose your phrasing so as to avoid the necessity of personal pronouns, or to use the person's name." That was the exact strategy used by Monica Cellio, in order to not offend anyone. Mar 26 at 12:59
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    @EricDuminil There is one slight difference in the Monica Cellio case, which is that Monica proposed avoiding the use of pronouns even for people who did specify pronouns that they wanted to be used to refer to them. The stated problem with that is that avoiding calling someone “she” who wanted to be called “she” (for example) was a lesser degree of not respecting and using the requested pronoun, even if it didn’t involve using the wrong pronoun. In this case, the person in question has specifically requested the strategy that Monica proposed, so it is respectful in this case. Mar 27 at 3:07
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There are not that many reasons why guests or listeners to a seminar or other presentation would actually talk about the presenter using pronouns with the presenter themselves. It would be more relevant to the chair introducing the speaker who might deliver a short bio overview and then the "no pronouns please" would mean to say "John (Doe) received the PhD degree at ...: instead of "He received his PhD degree at..." or "They received their PhD degree at...".

Should the name be repeated too much, one can mix in neutral noun expressions such as "our guest", "today's speaker" or similar.

Of course, when the attendees discuss the presentation among themselves, they face the same issue. Did they like "his talk", "their talk" or "John Doe's" talk? If they are aware of the "no pronouns please" request, they should use the third option.

If you just want to have a talk with the presenter, there is not that much risk of doing anything wrong if you just call John Doe as John or as John Doe or perhaps prof. Doe and use the "you" pronoun to address this person directly.

I do agree that likely this information was directly received from some form the speaker filled, but I do not think it is wrong. If we want our speakers to be able to state their pronouns, they should also be free to say "no pronouns please", it is their choice. Also, it is not that complicated to follow that request. It does not really matter whether they are cis or trans.

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    "Also, it is not that complicated to follow that request. It does not really matter whether they are cis or trans." That is a ridiculous claim (and is somewhat self-refuting, in that you yourself found it difficult to avoid the pronoun "they"). In Kahneman terms, the majority of language production is a System 1 process. This person (and BTW, the phrase "this person" itself contains the pronoun "this") is requesting that speakers route EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE through their System 2. This is large ask. Mar 27 at 6:39
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    @Accumulation "this" in "this person" is not a pronoun, because it's not standing in for the noun, it's qualifying it; it's generally classified as a "determiner". There is a pronoun use of "this", as in "this is John Smith"; I don't think the speaker would object to that any more than being included in "you" or "we". The issue is only ever related to third-party pronouns, which certainly don't come up in "every sentence" in a conversation, unless you're discussing someone's eligibility for a job or prize perhaps.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 27 at 9:21
  • @Acccumulation I was aware of the "they" that slipped in in thelast sentence but decided to not edit the answer any more. You can view it as some evidence of ridiculousness if you so wish. However, how some other people speak about that person in theeir private conversation is the least important bit and just reasonable effort to stay polite should normally suffice. After all, even if they are outright rude in private, it is mostly about their own conscience. In public it is different. I don't think the effort will be that different from other special pronouns like zir or xe or similar. Mar 27 at 9:26
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    @Acccumulation I would stress that the necessity of talking about the presenter in third person will likely be quite limited. Mar 27 at 9:31
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    I have to question YOUR good faith. Your argument is "You're taking something as literally meaning what it says. I've made up some other meaning, declared that that is the 'right' meaning. Now I'm accusing you of 'inventing hypothetical meanings' because you're taking it as its literal meaning rather than accepting my interpretation." You're the one inventing hypothetical meanings, not me. Mar 28 at 16:55
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Without knowing that the person identifies as non-binary, I would have been at a loss to understand the request.

Having that information, the request can most likely be taken by its literal meaning. The person asks the attendees to refer to them by their name only, without pronouns. For example: "As John was saying..." rather than "as he was saying..."

It's tricky. I just used "them", because pronouns can be hard to avoid, but of course the polite thing to do is to honour the request. When directly interacting with the person, it's probably easier. If you accidentally slipped a pronoun, most likely it's no big deal. If the person takes offense, just say "sorry", and that's it.

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It's becoming more and more common in bios and other places to see people specifying the pronouns you should use to refer to them:

  • "he/him"
  • "she/her"
  • "they/them" (known as "singular they")
  • "xe/xem" (and other neopronouns)
  • "she/they" (meaning either the "she" set of pronouns or the "they" set of pronouns)

(The format sometimes varies but two pronouns separated by a slash is the most common way to see it written.)

In the context of this developing culture, where more and more people identify as something other than their birth sex, "no pronouns" is unambiguous. It means that the person doesn't want to be referred to with any of the pronouns above. The reason for that will vary from individual to individual, but shouldn't ultimately matter. Try to respect the request, as for some people it is very important.

Instead of using "he", "she", etc., use the person's name, nickname, or a noun phrase like "my colleague" (as appropriate).

If you mess up, that's understandable because of how English is. According to what I've heard, you shouldn't make such a big deal out of it: just correct yourself and continue. It's certainly not easy, but you can make it a little easier for yourself by practicing not using pronouns ahead of time.

To clarify, you will still address a person like this as "you" when in person, "we" if you're collaborating together, or even "they" when it's a group including that person and others. It's just that you should avoid using 3rd person singular pronouns (or singular they) for such a person. (It also indirectly means you shouldn't use gendered nouns either such as "woman", "son", and so on.)

See also What do you do when someone doesn’t use any pronouns?

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  • @einpoklum For an answer about alternatives to singular they, I looked into different pronoun surveys. The best one may be Gender Census: they surveyed non-binary individuals and found that, in 2021, about 12% of respondents selected "no pronouns" when asked "Supposing all pronouns were accepted by everyone without question and were easy to learn, which pronouns are you happy for people to use for you in English?" — note multiple responses were possible for this question.
    – Laurel
    Mar 27 at 20:08
-1

Ask your professor. This is a life skill you should master. Speculating and asking other people what someone means--rather than directly asking them yourself--is inefficient and ineffective. It demonstrates a lack of candor and professional skills in dealing with others.

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  • From my reading of the question, this was a printed bio of an academic giving a one-off presentation, not someone the OP has an on-going relationship with. So, "next time, ask them" might be reasonable advice. But, asking here, and receiving good answers, means they won't need to ask next time they see this, because now they know what it's likely to mean.
    – IMSoP
    Mar 27 at 18:24
  • @maxhodges Congratulations on your impressive deductive skills and impeccable manners. Wow.
    – Sam
    Mar 28 at 22:13
  • I never said, "next time, ask them." You're making things up. In my experience academics are often highly accessible even rather famous ones. They often have public personal pages with published email addresses. I've corresponded with several other high profile researchers. I stand by my advice. If you want to know what someone means, ask him, her or zer.
    – maxhodges
    Apr 1 at 15:01
  • > asking here, and receiving good answers, means they won't need to ask next time they see this well, the presumes receiving good answers. The top rated reply essentials says, "heck if I know; don't worry about it"
    – maxhodges
    Apr 1 at 15:04
-5

Take account of the cultural context

Based on present cultural context, presumably this academic does not literally mean that you need to avoid using pronouns --- presumably he just means that he does not like it when speakers "state their pronouns" when they introduce themselves and so he is choosing not to in his bio. There is nothing you have to do about this, other than being aware that this person is one of the many dissenters against the practice of stating one's pronouns in introductions and biographical information. Honestly, the kind of obtuseness required to pretend that this is all a mystery ---that this academic literally wants you to avoid all pronouns--- strikes me as part of the orthodoxy. It is what Orwell referred to as "Crimestop" or "protective stupidity".

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  • This has led to some discussion / dissent; however, it does not seem that this discussion will lead to the answer changing, so let us continue the discussion in chat. Please only post a comment below this if there's a realistic chance it will lead to the answer changing. Please also note our behavioral expectations and avoid personal insults (some people feel that the use of "obtuse" in the answer is itself insulting; this objection has been noted).
    – cag51
    Mar 27 at 1:53
-6

Just apologize. Send them a note and tell them that you realize you made a mistake on their pronouns since they asked you not to use them, that you are sorry and you'll do better in the future.

How do others refer to them in third person? Do they not go by "they"? I find this a little confusing, so if you are also confused, you could take the opportunity to clarify how they prefer to be referred to in third person, so you can avoid another mistake.

Misgendering someone or otherwise flubbing pronouns is embarrassing, but it means a lot to people when you take the opportunity to recognize the wrongdoing and apologize. It signals that you take the matter seriously and you respect their wishes. What you definitely do not want to do is behave as if their transgender status is something to be hush hush about or as if pronouns cannot be discussed openly.

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    Apologize for what? Someone edited my question and butchered the intended meaning. The presentation had not even happened when I posed the question. Take it easy.
    – Sam
    Mar 24 at 23:33
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    @ran what I read indicated that you used the incorrect pronoun when addressing a transgender man. Are you saying that isn't what happened and that you are just asking hypothetically?
    – psithurism
    Mar 25 at 3:03
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    In short: if you use the wrong pronouns in any context, you should apologize. If you are wondering what pronouns to use and need clarification, ask for it.
    – psithurism
    Mar 25 at 3:04
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    @Ran If I butchered the intended meaning of your question while editing, I apologize, but you can edit it to better reflect your meaning. I edited it because in its initial form was unclear and was already attracting close votes.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Mar 25 at 9:53
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    @MrVocabulary sure, but the question above is "what could I do if I made a mistake and used an incorrect pronoun?". My response is that you should apologize and move on.
    – psithurism
    Mar 26 at 13:08

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