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
Baron, Dennis E. What’s Your Pronoun? : Beyond He & She. Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021.
Location: P279 .B37 2021
What's Your Pronoun? is an essential work that addresses one of the most pressing cultural questions of our day. Providing much-needed historical context and analysis to the debate around what we call ourselves, pioneering linguist Dennis Baron brings new insight to a centuries-old topic and illuminates how--and why--these pronouns are sparking confusion and prompting new policies in schools, workplaces, and even statehouses.
Bongiovanni, Archie. A Quick & Easy Guide to They/them Pronouns. Limerence Press, 2018.
Available online at https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/cod/detail.action?docID=7008211
Archie, a snarky genderqueer artist, is tired of people not understanding gender-neutral pronouns. Tristan, a cisgender dude, is looking for an easy way to introduce gender-neutral pronouns to his increasingly diverse workplace. The longtime best friends team up in this short and fun comic guide that explains what pronouns are, why they matter, and how to use them. They also include what to do if you make a mistake, and some tips-and-tricks for those who identify outside of the binary to keep themselves safe in this binary-centric world.
Hartocollis, Anemona. “Gender Pronouns Can Be Tricky on Campus. Harvard Is Making Them Stick.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 19 Feb. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/19/us/gender-pronouns-college.html.
A look at how Harvard and other universities are revamping practices to integrate a wider range of gender pronouns.
COD and the LBGTQIA+ Community - https://www.cod.edu/student_life/resources/lgbtq/community.aspx
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)
“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.