A few words make a big difference: A guide to personal pronouns

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Emergency and admissions staff at The Ottawa Hospital wear these buttons with their pronouns.

Your pronouns are an important part of your identity, just like your name. Assuming that someone’s pronouns are based on looks can not only be wrong, but it can also be hurtful and even harmful. Transgender staff and volunteers at The Ottawa Hospital answer frequently asked questions about personal pronouns and how to use them respectfully.

What are pronouns?

Answered by Darla Burrow (she/her), eLearning Administrator

A pronoun is another word that replaces a noun and is often used to convey gender.

However, because a person’s actual gender may differ from the one they were assigned at birth, they may use different pronouns than expected (i.e. a trans woman using female pronouns like her ). A person’s pronouns may also change over time as they explore and better understand their gender. Some people have genders that don’t fit into the masculine/feminine binary and often use them/them pronouns. Some experience gender in a fluid way that slides between binary positions, changing pronouns or using multiple sets of pronouns at once (he/they or he/him/they). Others know gender beyond standard English vocabulary and may use neopronouns like xe/xir or fae/faer or have genders rooted in the historical roles of their specific culture whose pronouns do not translate into English. There are people who don’t use any pronouns and prefer to have their name used in contexts where third person pronouns would be used.

Why is it important to respect and ask for personal pronouns?

Answered by Jesse Bossé (they/them), member of The Ottawa Hospital’s Rainbow Patient and Family Advisory Committee and Registered Psychologist with Tall Tree Psychology

When we ask about pronouns, it prevents us from confusing people. We know that sexual abuse has many negative impacts on mental health. It is associated with increased risks of depression, anxiety and suicidality. Numerous studies have consistently demonstrated a direct link between instances of sexual error or self-effacing and poor mental health. I would even say that asking for pronouns is a form of suicide prevention. It’s about protecting the lives of people of diverse gender identities and fighting cisnormativity (the assumption that everyone is cisgender). I get things wrong quite often, and it’s exhausting. I go home at the end of the day completely drained. It’s a burden I carry as a gender diverse person. But if people asked about pronouns and didn’t make assumptions about my gender, I wouldn’t have to put up with this exhaustion or fatigue. When we don’t ask about pronouns or don’t respect pronouns, it sends a message to people of different genders that they don’t matter or that there’s no room for that. they exist.

How do you ask for someone’s pronouns?

Answered by Cole Etherington (he/him), Senior Research Associate

In general, I think the easiest way is to just introduce yourself with your name and pronouns to every new person you meet, regardless of their gender identity or presentation. In other words, do it with everyone in your life: cisgender and trans/non-binary/gender-nonconforming people. Just make it a regular thing and not something used selectively. If I meet someone and say, “Hi. My name is Cole and my pronouns are he/him. It is a pleasure to meet you ! this opens the possibility for others to also share their pronouns.

If you first introduced yourself with your pronouns and the person hasn’t divulged theirs, ask them nicely if they’re comfortable sharing their pronouns so you can talk to them properly. I think the majority of people would agree with them and agree with the question. If someone doesn’t choose to share their pronouns, or if you don’t know which pronouns to use, it’s best to avoid using gendered language in conversation, which we should do anyway, especially when we don’t know anyone personally.

    Buttons with pronouns

What if I use the wrong pronoun?

Darla replied

Apologize and correct yourself. That’s it. You don’t have to do anything more. But be sure to watch yourself in the future. There’s a difference between the occasional slip-up and making it a habit.

How does The Ottawa Hospital respect patient pronouns?

Answered by Ben Murray (he/him), member of The Ottawa Hospital Rainbow Patient and Family Advisory Committee

In emergencies and admissions, patients are asked for their pronouns when they present themselves for access to care. A gender diversity training module was launched for emergency and admissions staff, which the Rainbow Patient and Family Advisory Committee helped to develop. Many staff who have taken this training have been given buttons with the pronouns they use, and they have been trained to introduce themselves with their name and pronouns and ask each patient how they would like to be addressed. Other gender diversity training sessions also took place at the hospital. Epic [a technology used by the hospital to securely store, organize and access patient records] has been revised so that people’s chosen pronouns and names are recorded so that they can be referenced by something other than their birth name. There is a push for the hospital to be more equitable and diverse.

Additional Resources

  • Pflag Canada is the only national organization in Canada that provides peer-to-peer support, working to help all Canadians struggling with issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
  • Rainbow Health Ontario Trans Health Knowledge Base features answers to frequently asked questions from trans and non-binary people in Ontario.
  • Educational resources for trans students is a youth-led organization dedicated to transforming the educational environment for trans and gender nonconforming students through advocacy and empowerment.
  • The Get REAL Movement is a Canadian non-profit organization focused on addressing 2SLGBTQ+ discrimination, racism and bullying in schools, summer camps and workplaces.
  • The Gender Dysphoria Bible is a guide for those who are wondering, those just starting their transgender journey, those who are already on their journey, and those who just want to be better allies.


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This website gives you common facts, tips and tricks. Some of them may not apply to you. Please talk to your doctor, nurse or other member of the healthcare team to see if this information will work for you. They can also answer your questions and concerns.

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