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.”
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).
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.
You also can:
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).
For additional guidance as well as scenarios, visit "Mistakes: What if someone makes a mistake and mispronouns someone else?" from MyProunouns.org
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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.
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.
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.
This guide is adapted from "Gender Pronouns and Teaching" from the Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo, and has been made available under a CC BY-NC license.
International Pronouns Day is October 21, 2020
Visit https://pronounsday.org/ for more information