March 2019
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Gabriel Winer, Berkeley City College, Berkeley, California, USA

Transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) people, including those with nonbinary identities, exist in our professional as well as personal worlds. Despite advances in visibility and civil rights protections in many countries, this population is the target of recent backlash, including attempts by the current U.S. presidential administration to write us out of existence under the law. This political oppression has social repercussions; a 2017 report by GLSEN marked an increase in victimization of students based on gender expression for the first time since 2007 (GLSEN, 2018). Within ESOL classes, this stigma can be compounded by race and immigration/refugee status, among other factors. Research has shown that supportive classrooms can make a huge difference in physical safety and educational outcomes for trans and gender nonconforming students. Teaching our students inclusive pronoun use respects them as learners of an evolving language and is one important way we can validate the personhood of our trans and GNC community members. For more information and ways to be an ally, click here: Resources: Teaching beyond the Gender Binary. But first, let’s take a look at this little, powerful word.

Epicene They for a Singular Person of Unknown Gender

Singular they has long been used as a pronoun to refer to an unknown person (“Oh no! Someone left their laptop in the classroom. I’ll keep it here in case they come back for it.”) since at least 1375, before the singular you was acceptable in place of thee or thou. This use has been ubiquitous not only in informal speech, but is common in famous published texts, including texts written by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Wilde, and Carroll, and in The King James Bible. During the 1700s, when British grammarians tried to retroactively apply Latin grammar rules to English, such as disallowing split infinitives and prepositions at the ends of sentences, there was a movement to prohibit the epicene they in favor of the generic he. In the 1970s, feminist pushback against the idea that he can function as an accurate generic pronoun resulted in several awkward alternatives: he/she, he or she, s/he, alternating he and she, and so on. Now, according to many sources, we are back to the original they, and even publications with conservative style guides such as The Economist (which still doesn’t approve of Ms.) concede that it’s the most logical, practical, and already-in-use solution.

Singular They as a Gender-Neutral Personal Pronoun for a Person With a Nonbinary Gender

In recent years, use of the singular they specifically as a personal pronoun for those who do not use he or she has become the accepted grammatical standard, for both journalistic (Brooks, 2017) and academic contexts. (“Ask Sam if I can borrow their stapler, or if they need it for class today.”) Even those style guides such as Chicago and American Psychological Association, traditionally more formal than Associated Press, who are still dragging their feet on the use of epicene they, recommend or allow use of the singular they as a personal pronoun for a known person who prefers it (Perlman, 2017).

But Is It Correct?

Yes, it is. You do not have to choose between being “grammatically correct” and “politically correct.” Using they to refer to one person of unknown gender, or a person without a binary gender, has actually at this point become the grammatically correct choice. It’s in the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s in The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and thePurdue Online Writing Lab. It does all our students a disservice to insist that the rules of language are static and unchanging; we know that a language is a living reflection—and architect—of our shared social reality.

What Else Can I Do to Improve Educational Access for Students of All Genders?

  • Always use preferred names.

  • Announce how to change names in the course management system.

  • Don’t use first names when taking roll on the first day until students can specify a preferred name.

  • Include gender pronoun as an optional choice on first-day student surveys/introductions.

  • Add a statement of inclusivity to your syllabus or class rules/agreements.

  • Add your own pronouns to your email signature. (e.g. Jane Doe, ESOL Instructor, she/her)

  • Use pronouns in introductions at staff meetings.

  • Kindly explain to a less-informed colleague why and how they should use peoples’ stated pronouns.

  • Kindly correct a colleague or student when they misgender someone—either right in the moment or privately—so the misgendered person does not have to do it themselves.

  • Reduce binaries/gendered language in your own teacher talk. (E.g., “How are you doing, ladies?”, “Ladies and gentlemen,” and “Let’s hear from some of the men in the back.”)

  • Use they as the pronoun for a singular unknown person in classroom talk. (E.g., “Turn to your partner and ask them what they think about X.”)

  • When teaching pronouns, teach students how to use they for individuals.

  • Include diverse gender identities in course content (but not in the context of debating peoples’ rights).

  • Update course materials (handouts, tests, websites) to reflect modern usage of gender-neutral language.

  • Contact authors/publishers/website sources to ask them to update their language to reflect modern usage.

  • Use your authority as an English teacher in casual conversations in and out of your workplace to stand up for users of singular they and other nonbinary pronouns.

  • Use your authority as a teacher of diverse populations to help dispel the dangerous myth that queer/trans people are all young, White, and U.S.-born.

  • Reach out to an existing queer/trans student group—or help start one—as a mentor or ally.

  • Share an article or other resource on this topic with a colleague or your department.

  • Ask your professional development department and/or administration to offer trainings on gender inclusivity.

  • Learn about your institutional policies and local laws and advocate for trans-friendly changes.

Note: Thanks to Elizabeth Wadell for her editorial assistance.


Brooks, R. (2017, April 06). 'He,' 'she,' 'they' and us. Retrieved from

GLSEN. (2018). GLSEN 2017 national school climate survey. Retrieved from

Perlman, M. (2017, March 27.). Stylebooks finally embrace the single 'they'. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved from

Gabriel Winer has been teaching ESOL at Berkeley City College since 2007 and has been chair of the ESOL Department since 2015. Before that, they taught English and ESOL at Contra Costa College and Berkeley High School, and before that, had too many jobs to count, mostly in construction, restaurants, and retail.


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