How to Write About, Edit, and Cite Source Pronouns Accurately

By Bax J Ferguson June 3rd, 2022

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“You’re the first person who has ever asked me that!”

I’ve lost track of the number of times a source has said this when I ask them what pronouns they want used in a story. Yes, a lot of them are cisgender—people whose gender and sex are concordant with those assigned to them at birth. But some of the sources I’ve heard exclaim this have been transgender people—nonbinary folks like me who use multiple pronouns.

Every time I hear this, I’m shocked anew. Pronouns are not just a “transgender issue.” Cisgender people can be misgendered with the wrong pronouns just as easily. It happens both accidentally and maliciously.

It’s an issue many people feel strongly about. Here’s a breakdown of pronoun accuracy and why it’s important for journalistic integrity—and for everyone who works in content.

Getting pronouns correct (hint: it’s about more than looking them up on LinkedIn)

Like sexuality, gender is fluid, and a person’s pronouns and identities can change unexpectedly. So, don’t just go off of what’s on a LinkedIn page. Getting pronouns right is as fundamental to storytelling as the spelling of a name, and luckily, it’s just as easy to confirm with a simple question.

“I always ask, ‘What pronouns would you like me to publish when we quote you?'” said data and graphics reporter Kae Petrin. “The pronouns that someone uses in a conversation or in a bio might not necessarily be the pronouns they want in print.”

As for when to bring up pronouns in an interview? It’s simple: At the very beginning. Save your fact-checker some time and get these details on the record before anything else. This shouldn’t be a new process for a seasoned writer. Depending on the type of content you’re writing, you may need to know how a person identifies their race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, or sex. If nothing else, you’ll want to verify their full name/titles and identify their relevance and expertise in the context of the story. You can ask about pronouns at the same time.

“The pronouns that someone uses in a conversation or in a bio might not necessarily be the pronouns they want in print.”

As an interviewer, I try to balance affirming my source’s identities while also being open to correction. I might ask, “I know you use both they/he pronouns, so I wanted to check if you have a preference for one over the other, or if I can use them interchangeably.” This lets a source know that you’re up to any linguistic challenge.

Here’s another way to phrase it: “Your bio says you use she/her pronouns, so just let me know if that changes, or if you prefer something different in this publication.” This signals flexibility while proactively affirming your source. This can be vital for transgender people who frequently find their gender questioned, and also for anyone whose gender is in flux.

In terms of the particulars, you don’t have to develop your in-house style guide on gender and pronouns from scratch. The Trans Style Guide, produced by the Trans Journalists Association, is the go-to resource on the subject.

Writing about sources with multiple pronouns

Sometimes, a source may ask that more than one pronoun be included in citations. For example, in April 2021, sportswriter and author Frankie de la Cretaz wrote a story for Sports Illustrated that’s become well-known even outside of sports circles for its use of multiple pronouns. It was, for de la Cretaz and their source, a matter of accuracy.

“When someone uses multiple pronouns, defaulting to just one is an act of erasing parts of their identity,” said de la Cretaz. “I’m glad I did not have to do this here… The reason we used all their pronouns was because those are their pronouns. No justification needed.”

“When someone uses multiple pronouns, defaulting to just one is an act of erasing parts of their identity.”

It wasn’t something de la Cretaz had a lot of examples to work from, and in a newsletter that detailed the process of publishing the story, they wrote about how grateful they were to have an editor who fought for them. “I don’t know that I’ve ever really seen a mainstream publication go all-in on multiple pronouns the way SI allowed me to here,” they said.

Accuracy vs. overexplaining

Accuracy is a journalistic virtue, one any good publisher should strive for. But unfortunately, it can also become a cover. Sometimes, it’s used as an excuse to overexplain transgender lives or deadname us—that is, publish the names we used before transition. Often, writers focus unnecessarily on our bodies, physical transition, and transness in general, even when it has no bearing whatsoever on the story being told.

Truth on the page is about framing the context in which your story occurs. Not just, “Who is my source, and how do they describe themself?” But also, “Is this person’s gender, their transness, and the grammar of their pronouns relevant to the story we’re telling?”

So, it’s important to discern between accuracy and overexplaining, the latter of which can get too close to an interrogation of identity. For many transgender people, unnecessary explanations of their pronouns feel like an attempt to explain away our difference—or highlight it in a way that comforts cisgender readers.

It’s important to discern between accuracy and overexplaining, the latter of which can get too close to an interrogation of identity.

This is how it feels each time I see a source described as, “[name], who is transgender and uses they/them pronouns.” This is ubiquitous—cliche, even—in writing about nonbinary transgender people.

The justification for this line is, of course, that “gender-neutral pronouns are confusing.” This excuse might make sense if people were also still confused about the singular “you” or complaining about why no one uses “thou” anymore. But as the Trans Style Guide’s section 1.4 Guidance on respectful coverage states: “They/them pronouns are only confusing when stories are written poorly.”

Best practices, broken down

Many marginalized people are justifiably wary of how they might be represented in the media. You can affirm a source by signaling your intention to write about them accurately, and by being honest with them throughout the editorial process. Seek out trans sources when you are writing about us, absolutely—”nothing about us without us”—but also seek us out when you are not! Consider quoting transgender sources in stories that have nothing to do with gender.

Here’s a cheat sheet recapping the best practices for speaking about transgender people in media, which can be broken down into three categories. Work to write:

  • For accuracy: Don’t assume pronouns based on what you find online. Always ask your source. Not everyone uses the same pronouns everywhere all the time—so be specific with the language you choose.
  • For diplomacy: Think about how you will ask your sources about their pronouns ahead of time. Avoid overexplaining trans people’s pronouns.
  • For equality: Don’t just ask people you know to be trans what their pronouns are—ask your cisgender sources, too. Be willing to fight for your writing or editing choices and back them up.

Editors and fact-checkers may not always agree with your source’s self-descriptions. But transgender people need cisgender writers, editors, and publishers who will go to the mat for us. Take up the challenge, come prepared with statements directly from your sources, and use references like the Trans Style Guide—these tools can all help you fight to write more accurately and empathetically.

Image by nadia_bormotova
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