What are pronouns?
A pronoun is a part of speech that replaces a noun or noun phrase to eliminate unnecessary noun repetition in communication. (For a deeper primer on pronouns, please see the Writing and Communication Centre’s excellent resource sheet on pronouns.)
When referring to people specifically, pronouns are the words that replace a person’s name to avoid repeating that person’s name multiple times in a sentence or phrase – for instance, “Tommy sets Tommy’s water bottle down on the table beside Tommy so Tommy doesn’t have to keep holding it” sounds cumbersome. Pronouns can help out: “Tommy sets his water bottle down on the table beside him so he doesn’t have to keep holding it.”
What are gender pronouns?
The English language has historically and still today operated on a binary system with personal pronouns when referring to individual people: we have masculine pronouns (he, him, and his) and feminine pronouns (she, her, and hers) that indicate the binary gender of the person to whom we are referring. These are gender pronouns.
However, since we cannot know a person’s gender identity simply by looking at them, to assume someone’s pronouns when replacing their name in any form of communication can be disrespectful and hurtful. Accordingly, it is now acceptable and even encouraged to use the pronouns they, them, and their (or the “they-series”) to refer to singular persons (such as a doctor, a student, a Teaching Assistant, etc.) when we do not know their gender or when their gender is non-binary. (“Non-binary” is an umbrella term, and people might identify with other identities, such as agender, genderqueer, gender fluid, etc.) Using the they-series of pronouns this way works to ensure and promote inclusivity in communication because it avoids making assumptions about a person’s gender. “They” as a singular, non-binary pronoun was even named the “Word of the Year” in 2015 (Abadi).
How can I be inclusive with gender pronouns in my teaching?
The best way to be inclusive with regard to gender pronouns is to model their use proactively and inclusively to cultivate a safer place in your classroom, office, and in your rapport with your students.
- Avoid assuming a student's pronouns, as it can easily make someone very upset and uncomfortable.
- Make it clear that students are welcome to self-identify (or not) with regard to their gender and lived personal pronouns.
- Include your own lived personal pronouns on your course syllabi along with your contact information and office hours.
- Add your lived personal pronouns to your e-mail signature and to your office hour information on your office door.
- Update your online departmental profile with your lived personal pronouns.
- Share your lived personal pronouns out loud the first day of class with your students
- Invite your students to share with you their pronouns. Consider doing this in a confidential “Getting to Know You” questionnaire on the first day of class to avoid putting your students in the position of either having to lie about their pronouns or having to out themselves if they are non-binary or trans-.
You also can:
- Use more inclusive language and less binary language – for example, “partner” instead of “husband/wife”; “folks” instead of “guys”; “servers” instead of “waiter/waitress.”
- If needed, update your familiarity with the spectrum of gender identities.
- When in doubt or feeling uncomfortable yourself, ask and use your student’s name.
What if I accidentally use the wrong pronoun/make a mistake with a student?
If this happens, it’s okay. We all make these mistakes, and the best thing to do in this situation is to politely and quickly apologize, use your student’s lived pronoun, and move on. Try, “I’m sorry: I meant to say ‘she,” or even quicker, “Apologies: she.” A big apology or spending more than a brief moment clarifying the pronouns of your student can make everyone feel uncomfortable and awkward (Ruberg).
- Abadi, Mark. “‘They’ was just named 2015’s Word of the Year.” Business Insider, 9 Jan. 2016. http://www.businessinsider.de/the-word-they-named-2015-word-of-the-year-2016-1?r=US&IR=T. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.
- Ruberg, Bonnie “Beaux.” “Helpful, Friendly, They/Them Pronoun Info Sheet for Inclusive Workplaces & Communities.” USC and UC Irvine, April 2017. (PDF)
- Creating Authentic Spaces: A Gender Identity and Gender Expression Tookkit to Support the Implementation of Institutional and Social Change. The 519 Space for Change. (PDF)
- “Designating Personal Pronouns and Moving Toward Gender Inclusive Classrooms.” Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching Blog. Centre for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan. October 26, 2016.
- Killerman, Sam. “The Genderbread Person.”
- Mayberry, Tommy. “Gender Identity, Pronouns, and Lifelong Learning.” Centre for Teaching Excellence Blog. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo. July 5, 2017.
- Mayberry, Tommy. “Online Teaching Institute: Keynote – Gender Pronouns, Teaching and Learning, and Cultures of Respect.” Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Alberta, August 6, 2020.
- Pan, Landyn, Eli Erlick, et. al. “The Gender Unicorn.” Trans Student Educational Resources.
- “Pronouns.” Writing Centre Resources. Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo.
- Zane, Sherry. “Supporting Transgender Students in the Classroom.” Faculty Focus. July 25, 2016.
CTE Teaching Tips
- Fostering Student Morale and Confidence
- Trigger Warnings
- What is Universal Design?
- Universal Design: Course Design
- Universal Design: Instructional Strategies
- Understanding Essential Requirements (coming soon)
- Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing: Course Design
- Supporting Students’ Mental Wellbeing: Instructional Strategies
- Why is Inclusive Instruction Important?
Thank you to Midas Beglari (she/her) from the Glow Centre for feedback on this Tip Sheet that led to its updating to stay current, helpful, and accurate!
- Glow Centre for Sexual and Gender Diversity – oldest queer and trans student organization in Canada run entirely by dedicated student volunteers.
- Women’s Centre – aims to provide a female-positive and supportive environment on campus for women and trans folks, run entirely by dedicated student volunteers
- Making Spaces
- The Principles of Inclusivity
- Inclusivity Series: Sexual Orientation & Gender ID
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Gender Pronouns and Teaching. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.