Pronouns explained

What are pronouns?

According to Stonewall, pronouns are the words we use to refer to people’s gender in conversation - for example, ‘he’ or ‘she’. But not everyone identifies with the binary definitions of gender (male and female) so they may prefer gender-neutral pronouns such as 'they/them' or 'ze/zir'.

Someone's pronouns are not always obvious so we encourage staff and students to introduce themselves with theirs. By introducing yourself with your pronouns or including them on email signatures we help to create a more inclusive campus by not making assumptions of someone's gender identity based on their appearance or name.

But isn't 'they' a plural?

Not always. It can be used as a plural but it applies to the singular as well and you have probably been using it that way all of your life without realising. Mermaids UK explains that “We use they/them pronouns in every day conversations, and many people don’t even realise. If you’ve just come across a wallet on the floor, most people would say ‘someone dropped their wallet’. Non-binary people use all kinds of pronouns. Many use they/them, she/her, he/him or a combination".

In fact, using they/them as a singular is nothing new at all. You will find it used in texts such as The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's Hamlet and even the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. 

Why do pronouns matter?

It's okay to be confused if this is new to you but a person's gender and their right to be respected is no less valid just because you don't understand it. This video from Buzzfeed helps to explain why pronouns are important and how they should be used. 

Further down this page are some helpful tips on how to start using pronouns respectfully whilst working or studying at the University of Plymouth. 

In line with Stonewall advice, we are using the word 'trans' as an umbrella term on this page to describe people whose gender is not the same as, or does not sit comfortably with, the sex they were assigned at birth including non-binary, gender-queer and gender-variant people. 

How to use pronouns

All the following guidance is optional. We do not expect our staff and students to 'out themselves' so only share your pronouns if you feel comfortable doing so.


Introducing yourself

Get into the habit of introducing yourself with your pronouns. You may not be trans yourself but introducing yourself with your pronouns alongside your name is the best way to make trans people feel more comfortable. If you start doing this then others will follow, so make this business as usual in every meeting and interaction you have. 


Email signature

It's really easy to add your pronouns to your email signature and this is a discreet way to avoid misgendering someone which can be very hurtful for trans people and embarrassing for non-trans people. It also signals that you are a trans ally and will help everyone to refer to each other in a respectful way. 

After your name just put (he/him), (she/her) or (they/them) or 'My pronouns are...'.


Policies and letters

There is no reason to use gendered pronouns in any policies or letters you are writing (unless writing to a specific person and they have already told you their pronouns). Check through your work and replace 'he/she' with 'them' and if addressing letters or emails never start with 'Dear Sir/Madam' but use a gender-neutral alternative such as 'To whom it may concern' or 'Dear Student/Colleague' or find out the person's name and title. The University is currently undertaking a project to review all policies and ensure they are gender-neutral so if you spot any mistakes then please let us know


Zoom 

As well as introducing your pronouns verbally, you can quickly add them to your Zoom name. You can either go to your Zoom profile and add them to the end of your name (he/him, she/her or they/them). You can also change them in-meeting by clicking the three dots on your video and selecting 'rename'. Bear in mind that if you change them in-meeting then it will reset next time you log in, so we recommend changing them via your Zoom profile. Full instructions.


Social media

On whichever social media platform you are using, you can add your pronouns to your bio or your screen name. Just remember to use social media responsibly and staff should check University policy on social media usage. 

Frequently asked questions

Can I ask which pronouns to use?

Yes you can as long as you do it sensitively. Mermaids UK recommend asking someone what their pronouns are just as you ask their name, even if you think you know how they identify. Make sure you do it sensitively and after you have shared yours so you don't put them under any pressure. 


What if I make a mistake?

It's okay, we all make mistakes no matter how hard we try because we are all still learning. If you make a mistake:

  • quickly apologise
  • correct yourself
  • move on!

The worst thing you can do is dwell on it by repeatedly apologising or drawing more attention to this mistake. So apologise and learn from your mistake. 


What if my pronouns are being ignored?

Everyone in our University community deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and getting pronouns right is a way of showing respect to staff and students. 

Consistently mis-gendering someone on purpose is not only disrespectful but could be regarded as a hate incident. If someone is repeatedly using the incorrect pronouns for you or behaving in an abusive, harmful or hateful way then you must tell us. The University of Plymouth has a zero tolerance approach to such behaviours and all allegations are taken seriously. 


How do I learn more?

We have resources available for staff and students to learn more about being a trans ally as well as wider LGBT+ and EDI topics including anti-racism, antisemitism, gender equality and disability. Visit our training and resources page for more information on courses and resources available or dive into our LGBT+ Toolkit for podcasts, books and films to help with your development.