There's a lot of discussion going on about gender identity and gender politics, and I find myself easily confused by the multitude of options for gender pronouns. To solve this, it'd be easier just to ask someone what they'd like to be called, but in most cultures (Mine in the US included), it's rude to ask someone what their gender is. I've gotten responses from (not the people I'd like to ask) from horror to "He's Crazy!". I've also gotten negative responses from askees as well, and I want to try to avoid this in the future.

This wouldn't usually be an issue when trying to talk to them, just wording phrases to use "them" is a pretty easy work around. It's an issue when I need their preferred gender for filling out forms for them and such.

How can I ask someone what their preferred gender pronoun is without offending them?


6 Answers 6


Simply ask.

What are your pronouns?

It's generally better to ask an awkward question than to deal with the awkwardness of guessing and getting it wrong.

Also, drop the "preferred" I've made that misstep. I know it may sound more polite on the surface, but some people will be offended by the implication that their gender is a preference or a lifestyle choice.

I doubt there's a fool proof way to ask that's guaranteed not to offend anyone... It's a sensitive subject that's seen a fair bit of political spotlight in recent years. In my opinion the best way to get past these things is to address them plainly. It's only awkward because people aren't used to talking about it. The more people talk, the more they're aware of other people's experience, and the less awkward these conversations become.


When you are asking for the sake of filling out a form while doing your job, I think it would be perfectly fine to ask everyone with a short, casual disclaimer in the beginning that prevents people who consider themselves "obviously man" or "obviously woman" from being offended:

I have to ask this question to everyone: what is your preferred gender? list options

If you do this, you might get some funny looks and chuckles from "obviously men" and "obviously women", and in those cases, you can just make them feel comfortable by smiling or laughing and perhaps repeating, "Hey, I have to ask everyone, you never know!" They will likely think you are just being cheeky and move on. On the other hand, when you ask this question to people who are not "obviously men" or "obviously women", they will appreciate you immensely for not making assumptions.


I'm trying to understand why you need gendered pronouns for addressing someone? Wouldn't "you" and "your" work fine?

As far as the inter-company communication goes, if there's truly no need for the information you could try leaving it out, just ignoring that blank. I do that when I'm filling out forms that ask for my Social Security Number and I don't feel they have a legitimate right or need to have it. Sometimes they will want certain information but don't actually require it. Recently I asked a doctor's receptionist "What is this authorization for?" and she explained that they like to have a signed blank authorization on hand in case they want to send my health info on to a third party. It's for convenience. I said "I see" and sat back down and finished filling out the forms, then turned them in but without signing the blank authorization. They didn't insist.

Also, I agree with the suggestion that if you feel obligated to try to get the information you could frame the question as one you are required to ask, and make sure that you ask everybody. When I worked Non-Response Followup with the Census that's what I'd do. We were taught not to make any assumptions about someone's personal information. "This next question may sound kind of funny but I'm required to ask, are you male or female?" With a respectful smile. Of course that was very binary phrasing in accordance with what was on the form we were using, so you could word the question to better fit your own situation and goals.

Hope that may be helpful.


As one who actively does volunteer work, some of which requires rendering assistance in filling out applications and questionnaires, lately I preface such a situation with the disclaimer: "I have to ask, and get your response, to every one of the questions. So please bear with me as we go through each of the questions, ok?"

One of the more interesting issues I have faced is how to deal with a person who identifies as genderless, genderfree, non-gendered, ungendered, or being without a gender identity. We have a long way to go to accommodate those who who identify as having no gender whatsoever. While being agender is still rare, we are seeing an increasing number of people who identify as being agender.


What makes this difficult is that the unspoken rules around this are very different in different subcultures, and are changing rapidly. There are subcultures --for instance, liberal academic settings --where asking someone's preferred pronouns is standard and expected, others where the question wouldn't even be understood, and some where it would be understood, but considered offensive.

This isn't exactly the route of maximum courage, but I would tailor this to the setting. If you know you're in a setting where gender fluidity is the norm, find out the standard way of asking the question, and use it. If you're working in an official capacity, you can (as others have suggested) use official regulations as an excuse for asking, so that people don't take the question personally.

Otherwise, I would wait for people to volunteer this information if they want you to know, or to correct you if you misspeak.


Give introduce yourself with your preferred pronouns and then ask them name and preferred pronouns whenever possible.

  • "Hi, I'm RK, my pronouns are she, her, hers. What's your name and pronouns?"

When you do this, you say, "I'm aware that there is more than one gender, yours may not be what I expect, but this is not me assuming you are anything at all." By self-identifying, you make it clear that asking for other people's pronouns is about respect and courtesy, not curiosity and that you are in this with them.

When in doubt - use they, them, their.

No matter what any transphobic literary critic may tell you, they, them, and their is a grammatically correct singular and has been used for well over 500 years. If you do not know a person's preferred pronouns, use a variation on "they" until you are corrected. If you are never corrected? It's entirely possible that person's pronouns are variations on "they" and you are using the right pronouns with a minority gender person who is relieved that they never had to explain themselves to you.

  • 1
    Correction here: "they" is grammatically correct for "person unknown", e.g. "Someone dropped a 10 dollar bill... they did me a favor". But for a "known person" it's not correct, e.g. "Joe came over last night". "What did they want?". "What... was someone with Joe?" In this context, "they" doesn't make sense, because it indicates plural, and we are talking about a single person.
    – DaveG
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 17:39

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