Pronouns – what’s the big fuss?

Updated: Mar 29

Talking to other counsellors about pronouns I am often faced with the same questions and confusion:

– Do pronouns really matter that much?

– Do counsellors need to ask clients their pronouns?

– What do I do if I make a mistake?

– I’m confused about why some people use ‘they’ pronouns

I hope this article might help dispel some myths and help you become more confident in asking clients what their pronouns are, and in using them.

What are pronouns?

Firstly, a quick grammar lesson: what are pronouns? Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. We use them to avoid repeating the nouns they are referring to. Some examples of pronouns include: she/her/hers, he/him/his, they/them/theirs. There is also an ever-growing list of gender-neutral pronouns that are more commonly used online than in person.

We don’t naturally speak or write without using pronouns. Look at this sentence:

Sally takes her sunglasses with her every day in case it’s sunny; she also carries her umbrella in case it rains.

Without using pronouns here, to talk about Sally – where the only other option is to use Sally’s name – the sentence would be hard to make sense of. It would seem very convoluted and clunky, as if you were trying to avoid using Sally’s pronouns:

Sally takes Sally’s sunglasses with Sally every day in case it’s sunny; Sally also carries Sally’s umbrella in case it rains.

Why would I need to know pronouns as a counsellor?

As counsellors, we need to be mindful of 3 main contexts for pronoun awareness. These are:

· in supervision, when discussing clients with supervisors

· when clients use specific pronouns while referring to others

· when clients are relating to something that has happened in their past, referring to themselves,

e.g. When I spilt my milk, I heard Dad shout at my Mum ‘why did he spill his milk again!’

In a counselling context, when we are talking to clients about other people – rather than objects or places – we refer to them in the third person, using pronouns. With our supervisors, we refer to our clients using pronouns. When you know what your clients’ pronouns are, you can use them in supervision, w