“What are your Pronouns?”
A practitioner’s response, by Usman Maravia
On the first day of class, I invited my curious class of 14–16-year-old students to freely ask questions – anonymously, on a piece of paper. One folded up note read, ‘What are your pronouns?’ I had never been asked that question before so, as an English teacher I began thinking, ‘hmm, in first person, second person, or third person?’. My non-serious response was ‘me, myself, and I’. However, answering the question also strengthened within me a strong sense of individuality as I was responding i.e. ‘I’ and ‘me’. In any case, truly eye-opening was the thoughtfulness of the questioner who wanted to be sure that a) they weren’t misgendering me in any way and thought it important to ask my preferred pronouns rather than make assumptions and b) gauging whether or not talking about gender is safe in the classroom. Of course, students not sharing their preferences also does not necessarily mean you haven’t created a safe and comfortable space. Nevertheless, I became more attuned to the matter because of the fact that one student did.
Next, we began writing a formal letter based on a previous exam question – to invite an inspirational guest to the college to come and give a speech to the students and staff. Reading a piece of text from a 14-16-year-old in the first few weeks of class and awarding full marks is rare. I would usually expect incoherence, run-on sentences, as well as spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, and simply – just not enough writing. However, a student hands me this very articulate and emotional formal letter which was just under 900 words on gender matters. An interesting sartorial fact I read therein was that ‘skirts were invented for male anatomy’. Although this fact was presented historically, from my South Asian perspective, we still wrap a lungi (/luŋɡi/), which is a men’s skirt wrapped around the waist.
Writing out the speech was the next task. Students asked how a speech could be started. A cliched salutation would be, ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ … no wait, that is binary. The student pointed out ‘maybe just say – Hello/ Welcome everyone’. Now, where is this going? Practitioners need to be aware that there are more than just two genders. Eckert and McConnell-Ginet (2013, p.2) clarify that ‘Sex is a biological categorization based primarily on reproductive potential, whereas gender is the social elaboration of biological sex’. Additionally, practitioners are reminded of the Equality ACT 2010 as well as reminded of revisiting their colleges’ handbooks for further information on gender matters.
However, the discourse on gender identity is not simply a theoretical one. Getting to know our students will help us to realise that the way we refer to them, by taking gender conformity as well as non-conformity into account, matters highly to some of them. The student further added:
“when referring to anyone that you don’t know, you should always try and use gender-neutral language until you know their gender identity. Such as they/them pronouns, ‘person’ instead of ‘man/woman/sir/lady etc’.”
From the student’s point of view, “The whole point of using gender-neutral pronouns and language for anyone you don’t know is that you can never offend or misgender someone as they/them pronouns are gender-neutral”.
Interestingly, in 2015, The American Dialect Society, in its 26th Annual words of the year, voted the pronoun ‘they’ as the word of the year – as the emerging word that reflected a conscious choice to reject binary gender. However, using they as a non-binary third-person singular pronoun is not a recent innovation. Dating back to 1594, Shakespeare used they in the same sense in his narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece:
‘And every one to rest themselves betake’
Likewise, note how in 1811, Jane Austen used they in Sense and Sensibility (Chapter XVII):
‘No one can ever be in love more than once in their life.’
How about in 1814, Austen’s use of they in Mansfield Park (Chapter XXIII)?
‘Had the Doctor been contented to take my dining tables as any body in their senses would have done …’
Returning to our usage of pronouns, if no opportunities are provided for individuals to voluntarily share their preference then, without knowing another’s gender – should we assume gender based on looks? or use gender-neutral pronouns? or create ways to allow individuals to share their preferences? I leave these choices to you the reader to reflect on further.
On the other hand, if no opportunities are provided for individuals to voluntarily share their preference then, without knowing another’s gender – should we assume gender based on looks? or use gender-neutral pronouns? or create ways to allow individuals to share their preferences? I leave these choices to you the reader to reflect on further.
In any case, I began thinking about my use of language in the classroom. When I ask questions or refer back to what a previous student said, do I say ‘as he said’ or ‘ … she said’ or ‘ … they said’ or do I just use proper nouns?
On that note, I did use to get the feeling at times – in my own experience – of teachers feeling reluctant to ask me questions or referring to my responses even though I felt that the teacher was building on what I had said earlier – but no acknowledgement. Was this because some teachers were reluctant to pronounce my name or were they afraid of mispronouncing my name? This makes me wonder, do teachers have a fear of eliciting responses from certain students because they are afraid of misgendering them when it comes to referring to them? Should we also be modelling correct pronunciation for our learners in the class? In a study by Cooper et al. (2017), learning student names promoted an inclusive classroom practice and even made students feel special. Perhaps more research can be done on the impact of teachers referring to students with their preferred pronouns …
Whilst I may not be able to relate strongly with non-binary students, I know the feeling of being put in a box in terms of ethnic identity. Am I British? Am I Asian? Am I British Asian? Am I BAME? What is BAME?? Some days I feel British, some days I feel more Asian, some days I feel British-Asian, and some days I feel like just being me, does that make me ‘other’? Being put in a box or being asked to tick a box can be a very restrictive feeling. Likewise, allowing our learners the opportunity to self-disclose their non/gender preferences if they are comfortable, may provide them with a sense of empowerment as well as the sharing can be a sign of solidarity.
So here is some wise advice from my young thoughtful student,
“It would be more inclusive if you ask before using gendered language… Everyone should be given the option to disclose whatever they would like to (pronouns, gender identity etc) … so we don’t have to stress about telling you … Maybe you could start asking students their pronouns I would strongly suggest doing a lot of research because there’s not a lot of information out there about us … it is important to be familiar with students’ gender identities because you will likely misgender them if you are only memorising their pronouns without changing how you view them.”
At Myerscough College, we are committed to advancing FREDIE (Fairness, Respect, Equality, Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement) in all we do. So, are your students given the opportunity to share their gender preferences? Are you confident enough to elicit responses from them? As well as acknowledge their responses – using not only proper nouns – but also pronouns? Or do you simply ‘freeze in confusion’? (Mathew, 2017). Let’s be mindful and promote cultural proficiency … quality educational experience is an inclusive one – and talking about gender does make a difference (Brown et al., 2020).
I would like to thank you to Sue Keenan and Chloë Hynes for their feedback and reflections on my article, and most importantly, Quinn Turner as the contributing student.
American Dialect Society. (2016). 2015 Word of the Year is singular “they” [Internet]. 2016, Jan 8 (Cited 2021, Nov 1). Available from: https://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they
Brown, C., Frohard-Dourlent, H., Wood, B. A., Saewyc, E., Eisenberg, M. E. & Porta, C. M. (2020). “It makes such a difference”: An examination of how LGBTQ youth talk about personal gender pronouns. Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, 32(1), 70-80. doi: 10.1097/JXX.0000000000000217
Cooper, K. M., Haney, B., Krieg, A., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). What’s in a name? The importance of students perceiving that an instructor knows their names in a high-enrollment biology classroom. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(1), ar8. doi: 10.1187/cbe.16-08-0265
Eckert, P. & McConnell-Ginet, S. (2013). Language and Gender [2nd Ed]. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.
Mathew, K. (2017). What are your pronouns? [Internet]. 2017, February 22 (cited 2021, October 3). Available from: https://wou.edu/westernhowl/what-are-your-pronouns/
Legislation Gov UK. (2010). Equality Act 2010 [Internet]. 2010 (cited 2021, October 3). Available from: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/contents
Myerscough College. (2021). Equality, Diversity and Inclusion [Internet]. 2010 (cited 2021, October 3). Available from:
Myerscough College. (2020) Transgender Student Handbook V1 [Pdf]. 2010 (cited 2021, October 3). Available from:
Researcher at the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS), Lancaster University – and Coordinator of English at Myerscough College