In English, personal pronouns are words that are used to refer to people without using their name, such as he, she, or they. Pronouns are an important part of who we are.
People do not always use the pronoun that you may expect based on their name or appearance. Using someone’s correct pronouns validates their identity, helps make them feel like they belong, and signals that you can be a supportive contact on campus. When someone is referred to with the wrong pronoun, it can make them feel disrespected, invalidated, dismissed, and/or alienated.
As a staff or faculty member, you have the power to set the tone on campus and in your classroom. By modeling the correct use of pronouns for students and other staff and faculty, you can help create an inclusive campus environment. You are also creating a learning opportunity for people who may not have heard much about personal pronouns before.
The following table shows a few examples of personal pronouns and how to use them:
|Nominative (subject)||Objective (object)||Possessive determiner||Possessive Pronoun||Reflexive|
|She||She laughed||I called her||Her eyes gleam||That is hers||She likes herself|
|He||He laughed||I called him||His eyes gleam||That is his||He likes himself|
|They||They laughed||I called them||Their eyes gleam||That is theirs||They like themselves|
|Ze||Ze laughed||I called hir/zir||Hir/Zir eyes gleam||That is hirs/zirs||Ze likes hirself/zirself|
These are just a few examples. Usage varies over time and based on location, so expect to encounter other pronouns you may not be familiar with.
In Canada, the gender-neutral "they" is a personal pronoun that is commonly used by non-binary people. It is useful to familiarize yourself with this personal pronoun, although you may encounter people who use other gender-neutral pronouns.
Try not to make assumptions about which pronouns people use based on how they look.
You can simply ask!
- “What pronouns do you use?”
- “How would you like me to refer to you?”
- “My name is Alex and my pronouns are he and him. What about you?”
Sharing your own name and pronouns signals to the other person that you are interested in that information, and that they can share what pronouns they use in return.
Asking in Large Groups
Here are some practices to consider:
- Invite people to share their name and pronouns during an introduction round. It is a good idea to model what that looks like if you are presenting to a group that may not be familiar with the practice.
- You may also ask students to send that information to you in an email ahead of the first class, or invite them to include that information in their introduction post on a class discussion board or on a piece of paper collected during the first class.
- Use name tags to encourage people to share their pronouns. Some stores sell name tags that include space for pronouns, or you can make space on blank name tags. Having this information on name tags can make it easier to remember and check for people’s pronouns throughout the event or day.
While these are good ways to normalize asking for pronouns, remember that people may use different pronouns in different settings, and that some people may change what pronouns they use over time. Some people may prefer not to share their pronouns.
Apologize briefly, correct yourself, and move on.
Most importantly, try to practice so you get it right next time. No need to be overly apologetic: people understand that mistakes happen. What is important is showing that you are making an effort to use someone’s correct pronouns.
See this resource for more information about how you can respond (and not respond) when you accidentally misgender someone.
Yes. Some people feel comfortable using only one set of pronouns (for example, she/her/hers) but other people may be comfortable with being referred to as they or he.
Some people may want to indicate they feel comfortable with all or multiple pronouns as a way to be inclusive, but this practice can come across as dismissive to people who have to work to have their identity recognized and respected. Think about what it means for you to indicate that you use certain pronouns. If you would not be OK with people always referring to you as ‘they/them,’ for example, it is probably best not to say that you use those pronouns.
In most cases, it is appropriate to gently correct the person without drawing too much attention to the individual who has been misgendered. You could say something like "Actually, Jian prefers the pronoun he," and move on.
If a student staff or faculty is consistently using the wrong pronouns for someone, you could have a private conversation with them about the importance of using the correct pronouns.
Adding the pronouns that you use to your email signature is a simple and easy way to communicate that information to the people you work with. It avoids people making assumptions based on your name and/or your appearance.
By adding your pronouns to your signature, you also communicate that you are aware that this is an important piece of information, and you help create a work culture where it is usual – and even expected – to inquire about people’s pronouns so you don’t accidentally use the wrong ones.
At UBC, we have made it possible for faculty and staff to add their preferred pronouns using our official email signature generator.
If you are not familiar with pronouns other than ‘he’ or ‘she’, it’s a great idea to practice using other pronouns. It will help you feel more confident and make fewer mistakes when you meet someone who uses these pronouns. If you already know someone who uses other pronouns and you are trying to become more comfortable using them, it is always best to practice when this person is not around.
Everyone has their own tips and tricks for practicing. Here are a couple of websites that you may find useful:
Historically, "he" was used as a default pronoun whenever a universal example was needed. This practice is outdated and it is now recognized as sexist.
Instead, in some documents, people use the terms “s/he” or “he/she.” However, these options are still not inclusive of non-binary people who use other third-person pronouns.
A simple solution is to use the gender-neutral "they" in sentences where the gender of the person is not known or is irrelevant. People already do this naturally when they do not know the gender of the person they are referring to, as in the sentence, "I think someone left their wallet behind in the waiting room."
As shown below, the UBC Editorial Guide for UBC Communicators supports the use of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun:
As a modern, diverse, and inclusive university, we listen to what our community feels most comfortable with and increasingly ‘they’ is being used to refer back to a singular pronoun:
- If your child is thinking about university, they can get started early by coming to summer camps at UBC.
- A researcher has to be completely committed to their field of study.