I'm not a native English speaker. And I'm on the autistic spectrum.

In the last few weeks, I did watch the events around the termination of Monica Cellio unfold. I said nothing.
I did read about the resignations of several moderators. And I said nothing.
I did read the apology to the community, and still said nothing.
I did read the new Official FAQ on gender pronouns and Code of Conduct changes.
And decided it is time to speak now.

As a non-native English speaker it is hard for me to write well written English. But I can manage, using tools like spellcheckers and translators if I need a word.
Using the correct pronouns was hard. Most of the time it means for me that I had to guess the right pronoun; using unreliable information like name, profile picture or just my gut.

I did hope the new CoC would change that, and make it easier.

Well, it did the first part. No more guesswork. And I welcome this.
But at the same time, it makes it harder, at least for me.

Now the information what the right pronoun is is not in plain sight.
Easy to find on the profile. Or hidden in an old comment. Or in a message on Stack Overflow's chat. I'm not sure that I can and I am willing to go through an users entire history on Stack Exchange to find that one comment that just answers the benign question "What pronoun should I use?".

In the past I did mistakes. Used the wrong grammar, the wrong words.
Stack Overflow was a wonderful in how it taught me English.
If I made such a mistake, people edited my question or answer to improve my English.
And I would look at the changes they made, and try to figure out what the mistake was there.

There is no judging involved in editing an others person post.
For me it was a neutral way to point out my mistakes.
And I didn't feel bad about it. Because I am still learning English.

But the new CoC did change that.
Others are expected to point out my mistakes.
I am required to apologize for my mistake.
There is judging going on.

As a non-native speaker I don't care about your language.
For me, English is a tool. A valuable one I might add, but just a tool.
Tools may change over time, and that is fine.
I won't fight such change, because English is not my language.
As long as I am able to use this tool for what I love it, I don't care what you do to it.

I am fine with using any pronoun.
I don't care what word I use there.
Those neopronouns don't have a meaning for me.
I'm fine with one of them, any one.

But now, I fear that if I make a mistake,
if I didn't stalk a member of this community enough,
my silly brain forgot something that was not important for me,
that I will be banned. Not on the first mistake, but sometime.

So I have beg you:
Don't take my mistakes personally.
Don't judge me by my mistakes.
Please keep silently correcting my silly mistakes.

I believe that we can have a welcoming culture this way.
By not judging the others by their mistakes, but by correcting them without a word.
Showing them the right way, without judging and speaking.

But for me, well, I will have to deal with the new Code of Conduct now.
So my questions are:

  • How do I find the right pronoun?
  • How much work do you expect me to do to find the answer?
  • What pronoun should I use when I don't find the answer?

And for the long term:

  • Can't we please not point out the mistakes of others? Be it the use of a wrong pronoun or the use of doubt instead of question?
  • Can we have an easy place where we can find the answer on which pronoun we should use? Maybe in their usercard. Or in some other place.
  • 3
    No worries, it's not that hard: look in the profile and use what it says. If there is nothing, then use "they". Don't bother looking up old comments or old chats. When someone really cares about their pronoun they have to put it somewhere visible and not "hide it somewhere secret".
    – Tom
    Oct 12, 2019 at 0:22
  • 43
    @Tom the issue is when it isn’t in plain sight. For someone on the autistic spectrum (like me), it really does make a difference. I’ve been sticking to neutrals, and I’m not even sure that’s allowed any more. Worrying about referring to people in the correct way in order to not be penalised, and adding on top of that the fact that English isn’t the OP’s first language... That can be debilitating. Oct 12, 2019 at 0:26
  • 24
    @Tom so, I need to open profile before writing something each time I want to answer/comment. Are you kidding me? :D Oct 12, 2019 at 0:34
  • 11
    Thanks @Kyle. You got my worries good to the point, and for me, feeling welcome means that I can afford to make mistakes. If I remember, there was a post on The Workplace on how places that don't allow for mistakes will stagnate. I will try to find it. Oct 12, 2019 at 0:37
  • 10
    @aparente001 if I weren’t referring to you as “you” right now, I would have just had to click on your profile to respond. If I were asking a question and responding to comments actively, that would be many, many more clicks, and many, many more users to potentially get the pronouns wrong for, especially when referring to other peoples comments and answers. And the point still stands that if it’s not there, then how much searching should I be expected to do? Oct 12, 2019 at 0:58
  • 5
    @aparente001 if someone ask me to use specific word in comments, I'll use it. But I'll not open profile each time I want to say something to someone. Oct 12, 2019 at 1:13
  • 1
    @Suvitruf - The key is to figure out how to talk about people, not to people. Oct 12, 2019 at 2:30
  • 2
    @Tom I'd like to point you to this Prenominal Proposal, as it seems to address a lot of the issues the community has been having, and could also be used to address this question Oct 12, 2019 at 2:31
  • 3
    @KyleFairns - Have you taken a couple of sample discussions and counted how many third-person singular pronouns you used? // If there's nothing in the profile, and you don't know what the person's pronoun is -- then the safe choice is they. Oct 12, 2019 at 2:32
  • 3
    I wonder whether SE reads all these questions posted recently and laughs at us or whether they think we might have pushed it too far this time o_O Oct 12, 2019 at 8:39
  • 1
    @aparente001 re they. One of the issues is that using they all thE time might not be acceptable. If what you suggest is correct it needs to be in the CoC or at least the FAQ
    – mmmmmm
    Oct 12, 2019 at 22:40
  • 1
    @user151019 - I hope that a real dialogue between SE and Monica will take place soon, and hopefully that will get cleared up one way or the other. // I've been struggling to understand the differing points of view, and I think that the crux of the "they" objection was the prospect of someone using "they" only for transgender participants and people specifically requesting "they," implied discriminatory treatment (I think it's called ungendering). Now, if someone like OP feels overwhelmed and wants to simplify life by using "they" for everyone, then logically I don't think anyone would... Oct 12, 2019 at 22:46
  • 3
    @Tom - What about those users who never click on a user's profile, because their profile, has nothing to do with their question. In addition what about those users who write an answer for everyone? Asking for users to click on a user's profile is not reasonable and IS NOT A SOLUTION.
    – Ramhound
    Oct 13, 2019 at 1:01
  • 1
    @user151019 - As I understand it (but I could be wrong!), the problem only arises when there is a discriminatory use of "they." Let's consider an example. Let's imagine a discussion under a post, or in Chat, where User A uses "they" for someone who has openly and clearly identified as trans, with a gendered pronoun indicated in the profile, but then turns around and uses "he"/"she" for others. This could feel like a slap in the face for the trans person. This is what I have grasped from some of ColleenV's comments. Oct 13, 2019 at 2:50
  • 1
    @user151019 - I don't think you're alone in wanting some clarifications to be published in the FAQ. But here I think we should keep our focus on helping OP figure out how to cope with the new CoC as best as they can. Oct 13, 2019 at 13:15

3 Answers 3


If you’re looking for a simple rule to follow that saves you from worrying or confusion: just don’t use pronouns at all.

Instead of pronouns, just use a person’s name, or non-gendered descriptors like “OP” or “asker”. The FAQ is clear that there is no general requirement to use pronouns:

Q12: Does this mean I’m required to use pronouns when I normally wouldn’t?

We are asking everyone to use all stated pronouns as you would naturally write. You are not required to insert pronouns where you otherwise would not.

There’s been a lot of confusion about this, particularly the “where you otherwise would not” part. I interpret this as, essentially, an awkward phrasing of “Don’t be a jerk”. No one is going to comb through your posts counting how many times you use pronouns – that section is there for cases where someone specifically avoids using pronouns to be a jerk or to troll someone.

For some evidence for this view, here’s Shog9 explicitly endorsing avoiding pronouns as a strategy for being gender neutral:

There are a few other, more creative options too. It's even possible to avoid pronouns entirely in a great many cases - which can be useful in situations where ambiguity would creep in otherwise.

People have pointed out Q11 of the FAQ which says:

Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct

That is definitely a strange wording, but I’d argue that the key word in Q11 is “explicitly”. No one is going to count how often you use pronouns, but if you make it explicit that you’re not using pronouns because you’re uncomfortable with a specific person, then that’s “not nice” and probably a CoC violation. If you just avoid pronouns in general, or don’t need to use them in that sentence, then there’s no way that would be a problem

Here’s a real world example of the situation they’re trying to prevent with this rule:

I can only answer with an example from within my own family.

My sibling's partner has suffered long and deep hurt from the refusal of his birth family to refer to him as 'he/him' after his transition. They go out of their way to refer to him as 'Chris' (or rather his own gender-neutral birth name), or 'my child Chris' or 'my sibling Chris' or 'they'. By doing so they are denying his gender-identity, and doing so deliberately (and passive-aggressively) -- malicious compliance, it has been called elsewhere.

ColeValleyGirl’s post was really helpful for me to understand why they mentioned this and what kinds of behaviors they’re hoping to discourage.

This comment by Cesar M is also relevant and confirms my understanding of the goals and intention of the policy:

The intent of the requirement is to avoid users feeling singled-out, disrespected or invalidated. If someone's natural writing style always pertains equitably to everyone through typical discourse or isn't frequently interpreted as a clever means to avoid someone's stated pronouns, then, in theory, one might conclude that would work. In practice, it may simply not, and if we received multiple complaints of deliberately avoiding someone's pronouns, regardless of the intent, we'd need to take corrective action. – Cesar M♦

Once again, this specifies “multiple” and “deliberate”. Mistakes and normal avoidance of pronouns shouldn’t be a problem. It should only be an issue if there is a pattern of you going out of your way to make someone feel othered (see the above example from ColeValleyGirl).

If you make a mistake, apologize and correct your mistake if possible (e.g. by editing your post). Honest mistakes are fine, you don't have to maintain a perfect record. Apologize and move on. Try your best to remember. – Cesar M♦ yesterday

To be fair, there are definitely ambiguities in how this will work in practice, which SE should have thought about and fixed before releasing this policy. But I have faith, if not in SE, in the volunteer moderators who will actually be doing the moderating, that they will follow the stated intent of the policy rather than going out of their way to attack their fellow users.

Here are 2 other resources that I’d recommend people read:

Kate Gregory has written a really clear and helpful guide to gender-neutral writing that might be particularly helpful for non-native speakers

A Pronominal Proposal is an attempt to collect and debate positive changes to the policy to change the tone problems, clean up ambiguity, and fix potential loop holes. I think everyone with an interest in this policy should read and vote on it.

  • 31
    While I like this answer, Q11 seems to contradict this approach: Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct. I have no idea how they will determine that I'm avoiding pronouns (and yes, I'm uncomfortable about the entire pronouns thing), but I can certainly train myself to not use them. Not sure if this is already a CoC violation. Oct 12, 2019 at 2:35
  • 2
    @AnonymousUser Q11 is definitely a strange wording, but that’s why Q12 comes after. The key word in Q11, I’d argue, is “explicitly”. No one is going to count how often you use pronouns, but if you make it explicit that you’re not using pronouns because you’re uncomfortable with a specific person, then that’s “not nice”. If you just avoid pronouns in general, or don’t need to use them in that sentence, then there’s no way that would be a problem.
    – divibisan
    Oct 12, 2019 at 2:58
  • @PaulWhite I added it. It confirms my theory of the intent of the policy, at least. They keep shooting themselves in the foot with the communication, though. I really wish they had thought out the roll out a bit before starting this
    – divibisan
    Oct 12, 2019 at 3:33
  • 18
    "if we received multiple complaints of deliberately avoiding someone's pronouns, regardless of the intent, we'd need to take corrective action. – Cesar M♦" - This contradicts your interpretation of "allowed to avoid pronouns". Corrective action is a euphemism for "warning-suspension-ban".
    – user
    Oct 12, 2019 at 9:54
  • 14
    Isn't "not using pronouns at all" what got Monica fired? Oct 12, 2019 at 18:25
  • 1
    @Galastel 1) So far as I know, we don’t know for sure exactly what got Monica fired. We’ve heard her side, but I've heard from other moderators that it’s a little more complicated. I definitely think SE treated her badly, but I don’t think we can say exactly what the trigger was. 2) From what we know (and this might not be fully accurate) it wasn’t “not using pronouns” that got her fired, it was objecting to the policy which, as a moderator, she would have had to enforce. Mods are, quite rightly, held to a different standard than users and I don’t think we can extrapolate from her situation
    – divibisan
    Oct 12, 2019 at 18:31
  • @Galastel Do correct me if I’m wrong, I haven’t been following the situation as closely as others.
    – divibisan
    Oct 12, 2019 at 18:40

How should I deal with the new CoC? How do I find the right pronoun?

Ignore it. Do what you've done so far, in good faith and in a spirit of respect - and hope that negative authoritarian people don't excoriate or condemn you if you make a mistake.

  • Excellent advice. This ... peculiar issue has already garnered way more attention than its deserves.
    – collapsar
    Oct 14, 2019 at 19:02
  • There is good chance for that to succeed currently. My guess is that they intentionally wrote the CoC much more strict than how they intent to enforce it in practice, if only because it would be a practical nightmare anyway. Their wording seems to suggest that they mostly only want to get active if someone complains. On the other hand, maybe a new generation of mods will come one day that are more willing in enforcing the new CoC. This answer may become unfeasible then. Oct 15, 2019 at 8:27
  • @Trilarion: I believe that the gendered pronouns business is mostly a Red Herring. It so rarely comes up in practice that even if they were to "strictly enforce" it, that still wouldn't mean anything except in Meta posts where people go to duke it out specifically about this issue. The real effect here is showing us who's boss, getting intransigent mods to leave / get dismissed etc.
    – einpoklum
    Oct 15, 2019 at 12:25
  • "The real effect here is showing us who's boss, getting intransigent mods to leave / get dismissed etc." But how is this increasing the revenue? Oct 16, 2019 at 10:49
  • 1
    @Trilarion: That is a fair question; and I don't have enough information to speculate; certainly not to suggest a "Step 1, Step 2, Step 3: Profit" recipe. Remember, though, that gendered-pronoun-enforcement is also not much of a money maker :-\
    – einpoklum
    Oct 16, 2019 at 11:21
  1. How do I find the right pronoun?

Some user names are unambiguous, e.g., Jane, John. But if you feel any anxiety about jumping to the wrong conclusion.

You can check the profile; or you can use "they."

If you notice a nearby comment that says, "OP clarified that she is talking about the worst case scenario," then the likelihood shoots way up that you can use "she" too.

How much work do you expect me to do to find the answer?

Not a lot, according to staff clarifications. For example, you don't need to comb through the comments below the person's other posts.

Comment by @JNat:

We ask that you use gender-neutral language when uncertain, and use the stated pronouns once they're made known. If you wanna "go the extra mile," looking at the user's "about me" before interacting is certainly nice, but we're not requiring it.

Comment by @CesarM:

Made known is when you become aware of the fact. If it's in the comments, then, fine. Correct and move on. There's no obligation to go out of your way to seek it out, but if someone tells you directly, comply.

  1. What pronoun should I use when I don't find the answer?

They, them, their, themselves.

(There are also proponents of "themself" but you won't catch me recommending that.)

Note: you are certainly welcome to adjust your writing style so as to use third-person singular pronouns less often, if that is the most comfortable approach for you.

@Catija, staff, clarified recently:

If you use they/them by default, that's fine. If someone requests that you use other pronouns and you immediately continue to use they/them for that person, we may point it out to you. "Penalized" in most cases is generally going to be as minor as a comment being removed or adjusted to meet the request of the person being spoken about. Only in extreme cases of repeated requests to change will it lead to a mod message or suspension.

Here is an idea for you to consider. Given your concern that your neurological difference might affect things, you might want to consider having a brief, private chat with the moderators at the sites you frequent the most, to disclose your differences and share your concerns about misusing a pronoun. That way, they can treat any situations you might land in with special sensitivity. Also, they can occasionally model the desired behavior in discussions where you are a participant.

A supplemental idea: If you decide to simplify life and use "they" in all cases, it might be helpful to post that policy in your profile.

My son has a neurological difference (Tourette Syndrome), and has made the disclosure to the Dean of Students. This is providing a bit of a safety net, which reduces my son's anxiety level. This, in turn, reduces his symptoms.


Apparently with the new CoC, it's not okay to go by what appears to be an unambiguous username. I stand corrected and am editing my post accordingly.

Also I found out there is a tool that displays participants' pronouns, if known: Pronoun Assistant

  • 12
    I tried that, and I often got it wrong. And no, you should not assume a persons gender based on their name. Oct 12, 2019 at 0:37
  • 11
    Just a note: you probably shouldn't assume a pronoun based on the name. Even if it's a normally masculine name, the person might use different pronouns. Oct 12, 2019 at 0:37
  • 28
    And about disclosing me being on the autistic spectrum - guess where my username comes from. I made a burner account just so I can disclose this, without an employer googling my name and finding out about my medical condition. I think it is insensitive to require people that are different to wear a sign of it. Oct 12, 2019 at 0:46
  • 3
    What if the prior user that used "she" was wrong? If I follow that incorrect lead, according to the rules I can be banned. What is my defense ... this answer told me it was OK?
    – charlietfl
    Oct 12, 2019 at 1:28
  • 1
    @AnonymousUser - Sorry I didn't pick up on that. I see your point. Each individual has to decide for him or herself how much to disclose to their employer, and whether to use their real name, vs. a pseudonym for online activities. I will give it some thought and edit my post. Oct 12, 2019 at 2:00
  • 13
    Do I want to have an excuse? No. Why should my situation be the grounds for different treatment? All I am asking for that you all don't make my life harder. I can deal with the rest. Oct 12, 2019 at 2:42
  • 3
    @AnonymousUser - The need to respect others' pronouns is real. We can't wish that away only because some others are concerned it may be difficult to display that respect, due to, for example, a neurological difference. You may be feeling some anxiety about how this is going to play out. I personally am optimistic that, as time goes on, and others get the hang of this type of respect and model it with their behavior, it will become more comfortable for you too. However, only time will tell whether it is a surmountable or insurmountable challenge. Oct 12, 2019 at 2:54
  • 5
    Thanks for your kind words @aparente001. I appreciate it. The big difference now is that I might violate the CoC without noticing it. I still make mistakes with the English language, but now, it might not only be a benign mistake, it might be a violation of the CoC, something I could get banned for. And that's what scares me, makes me uncomfortable, and feeling unwelcome. "Better you got that pronouns right, or we will ban you" is not really a nice way to say "Welcome". Oct 12, 2019 at 3:00
  • 3
    @aparente001 thats a pretty long winded way of saying you don't get what it's like to have to worry about every interaction you have with people already, let alone if you could be punished for unintentionally referring to someone in the wrong way. There needs to be some room for error here Oct 12, 2019 at 3:01
  • 1
    @aparente001 Q2: Second, if you don’t know someone’s pronouns, use gender-neutral language rather than making an assumption.. Oct 12, 2019 at 3:05
  • 1
    @KyleFairns - My hope is that by discreetly disclosing the difference to the site moderators, some of the pressure will dissipate. However, each individual has to decide for him or herself about disclosure -- whether or not to disclose, when, to whom, how, etc. Oct 12, 2019 at 3:05
  • 7
    @aparente001, which pronouns should you use with the name "Andrea"? To someone from the United States, it's quite obvious that female pronouns should be used; someone from Italy will say it's equally obvious that male pronouns are correct. And it's hardly unique in that way: other ambiguously obvious names include "Sasha", "Carol", and "Dominique".
    – Mark
    Oct 12, 2019 at 6:47
  • 1
    @mark - Right. I wrote, "Some user names are unambiguous." Your examples don't fall into that class. Oct 12, 2019 at 15:32
  • 2
    @AnonymousUser: Regarding Q2: I think a LOT of the misunderstanding about the CoC is SE's unwillingness to make it clear what they require vs. what they prefer. The CoC requires that you use common sense and don't actively deny someone's gender after you're already informed about it. However, they prefer that you "stay on the safe side" and use they even when you have zero information.
    – user541686
    Oct 13, 2019 at 2:51
  • 1
    @Mehrdad - "Be careful" means: Watch out, your rule of thumb might not be as useful as you hope. Can you give some examples of what you call an "English site" and some examples of sites that you would not call an "English site"? Maybe I didn't understand that part quite right. Oct 13, 2019 at 2:51

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