Illustration by René Lapoutre

New style guide on inclusive language

The importance of he, she or they

Illustration by René Lapoutre
The introduction of a new guideline for inclusive language at the university has earned the Diversity and Inclusion Office hate mail. But it is a necessary measure, say transgender and non-binary students. ‘How do you correct the professor when he misgenders you during a lecture?’
31 May om 11:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 5 June 2023
om 11:34 uur.
May 31 at 11:51 AM.
Last modified on June 5, 2023
at 11:34 AM.
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Door Finn Oltmann

31 May om 11:51 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 5 June 2023
om 11:34 uur.
Avatar photo

By Finn Oltmann

May 31 at 11:51 AM.
Last modified on June 5, 2023
at 11:34 AM.
Avatar photo

Finn Oltmann

As a trans man, language and cognition student Max Reuvers has often been misgendered. ‘It is deeply painful because it removes your agency to be who you are. It removes your joy’, he says. 

The language used to refer to you says something about how people perceive you. And if that is not how you perceive yourself, that is downright painful, agrees Mariia Abdurashitova. They are non-binary and use the pronouns they/them. When lecturers refuse to use those, it creates ‘an environment where you do not feel comfortable walking into a classroom or sitting through seven weeks of two hours’ worth of classes’. 

And what makes it even more frustrating, they say, is that it could so easily be avoided. ‘Using the right pronouns does not make your life more difficult, but it means the world to your students.’


Trans students face this denial of self-determination all the time, agrees communication officer Emi Howard of the UG’s Diversity and Inclusion Office (DNI), who uses they/them pronouns. They often received emails from students expressing their concern about which names their teachers use. ‘Old names for example, which are not being used anymore. Or teachers not using the right pronouns.’ 

Using the right pronouns does not make your life more difficult

With many teachers, it is not because they want to hurt anyone, Howard thinks. But they don’t always know what to do. ‘Teachers, too, often reach out, asking for guidance on these matters. I think a lot of people know that there are developments taking place in language and want to know how to respond to that. And as the university, we need to be at the forefront of this.’ 

And so Howard and their colleagues organised workshops to raise awareness and teach lecturers about the correct use of inclusive language. ‘But there’s only so much you can bring across in one or two hours. And you see people are furiously writing everything down, trying to remember it for the next time.’


Now they have come up with a more permanent solution. A new style guide was published last month that helps lecturers to navigate the situations they find themselves in. ‘We really needed a paper or digital resource that people could go back to’, Howard says. 

The guide is a ‘resource document’ with tips and tricks on improving the inclusivity of writing, and it is not limited to gender-inclusive language. ‘It addresses all kinds of different topics, including gender-aware language, languages around ability, disability, neurodiversity, ethnicity, and background. It can be used like a dictionary or grammar tool: search for the language issue you are grappling with in the table of contents and use the style guide to help you.’ 

Many of these issues are presented with a list of subtopics. Within the section about gender-aware language, for example, you can easily find advice on the difference between gender and sex. Other categories are the avoidance of ableist slurs, or in what scenario to use the terms refugee, immigrant, or asylum seeker.

Living document

However, navigating language issues takes work. Not only is there a lot to address, many topics are sensitive, too. So this couldn’t be done by Howard and their colleagues alone. They sent the guideline for feedback to some relevant parties at the university, like the committee for students with a disability and the academic editing department. 

We had somebody sign us up to receive Fox News bulletins

And even now, Howard says, it should be seen as a ‘living document’. ‘If we’ve missed something and get feedback on it, we will incorporate it. So it’s always going to be evolving in that way.’

A Dutch version is also still missing. That’s because the terminology that is used differs drastically between languages, which makes a direct translation impossible. Dutch – for example – lacks the simple solution of the singular ‘they’ in the matter of pronouns. And so the DNI office is looking for somebody with the knowledge and skills in this field to address that issue. 


The guide generated a lot of positive responses, Howard says. ‘People were really glad it has been published and that it is concise.’ 

However, there was also the inevitable backlash. For one of the first times in its history, the DNI office received actual hate mail. ‘There were hateful anti-trans emails coming in from anonymous accounts’, Howard says. ‘And we had somebody sign us up to receive Fox News bulletins every few minutes to our joint email address.’

Programme coordinator Michaela Carrière had expected that, though. ‘I am not naive enough to be surprised,’ she says. She saw this situation as a confirmation of what she knew already. ‘Just imagine being part of the target group, knowing that those around you might hold such beliefs. Suddenly it is completely clear why we do what we do.’ 

Negative remarks

However, there is still a lot of work to be done. English language and culture student Aurora Dravniece – also trans – remembers repeated negative remarks concerning the legitimacy of trans individuals under the guise of playing devil’s advocate. ‘You do kind of wonder though’, she says. ‘Are they really taking it seriously?  Or are they trying  to make it a debate when it’s not really a debate?’ 

Your ignorance does not alleviate the burden of responsibility

Mariia had a similar experience, with teachers hardly ever using their pronouns. ‘Even though I have made it public on my Brightspace, very few people address me that way. With students, you can kind of correct them. You can just emphasise it with a friendly conversation. But how do you correct the professor during a lecture?’ 

Still, they too believe that the negative experiences they had are not all due to teachers actually being hostile. In many cases, it is more a matter of being ill-informed. 

‘I don’t think they all have the tools right now’, Max agrees. ‘And I also don’t think they have the time to do the research themselves. So that’s why the new guidelines are important.’

Mariia, however, does feel their teachers are responsible for doing the right thing. ‘Your ignorance does not alleviate the burden of responsibility’, they say. 


That is also why the students still worry. Because the new guidelines may be available now, but are they visible enough? And will the teacher actually use them? 

‘You can hold a wrench, right?’ Aurora explains. ‘But if you’re just going to stand around with that wrench, who is going to actually fix things?’

At this point, it’s usually still the trans students that constantly have to put in the effort if they want to be addressed properly. It would make life so much easier if others would support them more, says Max. ‘Teachers should set an example by including pronouns when they introduce themselves, because they carry the most weight in the classroom.’

Aurora wants to stay optimistic. ‘For me, you’re a good person until proven otherwise. You can make mistakes. You can learn from those mistakes. Ultimately, it’s those people’s choices. I choose to believe that people are good. And that they can change.’