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 traditionally 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 gender of 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 considered acceptable to use the plural pronouns (they, them, and their) 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 (some people prefer the term "agender." This ensures 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 safe place in your classroom, office, and in your rapport with your students.

  • Make it clear that students are welcome to self-identify (or not) with regard to their gender and proper personal pronouns.
  • Include your own proper personal pronouns on your course syllabi along with your contact information and office hours.
  • Add your proper personal pronouns to your e-mail signature and to your office hour information on your office door.
  • Update your online departmental profile with your proper personal pronouns.
  • Share your proper 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.

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 proper 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 proper pronoun of your student can make everyone feel uncomfortable and awkward (Ruberg).



CTE teaching tips

Waterloo-specific resources

teaching tipsThis 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.