OUSU pronoun policy story revealed to be fake

The Sunday Times falsely claimed that OUSU has told students to use ‘ze’ in place of ‘he’ and ‘she'

The Sunday Times yesterday claimed that Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) had released a leaflet that “told” students to use ‘ze’ as a gender neutral pronoun in place of ‘he’ and ‘she’, however OUSU deny that any such leaflet was ever released.

OUSU assert that they would never insist on students using the term and that their policy has only ever been to encourage students to declare their chosen pronoun when they speak at OUSU meetings.

In a statement, OUSU said, “As far as we’re aware, the information which has been published is incorrect. We have not produced a leaflet implying that all students must use ‘ze’ pronouns to refer to others, or indeed to themselves.

“We would also like to clearly state that we would never tell anyone to use ‘ze’ pronouns instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ if ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the pronoun someone wishes to use. That would be misgendering and would likely have the biggest impact on individuals (ie, some trans students) who may already be struggling to get people to use ‘he’ or ‘she’ for them. It would be totally counterproductive.”

Sunday Times Education Editor Sian Griffiths told Cherwell that the main source was an OUSU policy document published in June of 2016, which merely states that in OUSU meetings one should identify one’s preferred pronoun. The document makes no reference to ‘ze’ at any point.

The story was soon picked up by range of national and international media organisations including The Daily Mail, Russia Today, The Huffington Post, and The Times of India, who themselves provided no sources for the story.

The articles provoked a storm of angry comments bemoaning “special snowflake” students and “PC gone mad”.

One commentator on The Times article wrote of OUSU, “They are a bunch of teenage lefties whom no-one has ever taken seriously,  and that they should be given such publicity for their usual infantilism is bizarre.”

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Another on the MailOnline declared, “The lunatics are taking over the asylum.”

This follows weeks of debate about the rise of so called ‘fake news’, stories that are either exaggerated or totally made up in order to attract greater clicks and a corresponding increase in advertising revenue.

Media commentators have expressed their worry that fake news will play into the prejudices of those on both sides of the political spectrum, contributing to polarisation and damaging rational dialogue.

The Sunday Times has been contacted for comment, as well as The Daily Mail, Russia Today, The Huffington Post, and The Times of India.


  1. “their policy has only ever been to encourage students to declare their chosen pronoun when they speak at OUSU meetings”

    So the story was itself true though. If someone declared a made-up word to be their pronoun e.g ze, then others are forced to use it or they will be accused of transphobia. Even though the issue is not individuals who have clearly transitioned from one gender to another, for whom the current pronouns are sufficient, but the sudden evolution of a newer class of humans that want the rules changed.

  2. That wasn’t the story though. The story was students had been told to use “ze”, which wasn’t true, and that leaflets to that effect had been produced, which also wasn’t true. In fact, the account from OUSU never suggests any use of pronouns outside the traditional binary or any suggestion of a “newer class of humans”.

  3. Although of course ze has been used as a pronoun by plenty of people in print and otherwise for decades — nonbinary identity isn’t new to the Western world

  4. But if that’s the situation then really what is the problem Michael? I partly agree with you as I find the new made up pronouns to be a bit of a pain in the arse to even remember and work out how to pronounce but if someone says that’s how they want to be referred to then fair enough I don’t think the hassle of trying to do it worth upsetting them by ignoring their request. If you’re making the effort but make a mistake then hopefully people will still appreciate it, if they decide to get angry about then that’s a problem.

  5. If someone by themselves changes English grammar, why should someone else respect it? The idea can be debated freely, and if people call themselves that, then fine, but if someone thinks the change is absurd that should also be fine. The article is upset that the Times implied all students are now “ze” whereas the OUSU only wants some students to be “ze” if they choose. So my main point was that this doesn’t quite address the reason for the media outrage?

    The user above says that these pronouns are “decades old”. Of course, lots of crazy theories came out in the 60s which are now discredited, but for the vast majority of the population this idea is breaking out in public for the first time. The author of the article is shocked at the international reaction but if you’ve been following current events, it’s not that hard to understand. I heard a Trump supporter, say that they voted Trump because they didn’t want “40 genders”. So people outside of Oxford thinking we’re all lunatics is not at all surprising.

    Point is, it’s an idea that only sociology students understand, whereas clearly others would prefer not to make drastic changes to language depending on the latest theory being pumped out of certain sections of academia. However, we must all mix together and inevitably run into each other, and of course respect each other, so it’s a tough one.

  6. Michael, grammar is changing every single day. Language has to evolve in order to adapt to the needs of its speakers. And in the same way that we dropped thou/thee/thy for the sigular form of the 2nd person, we are able to take new forms for the third person of singular if that makes people more comfortable. Even then, most people who use ‘uncommon’ pronouns, are also okay with people using ‘singular they’. The singular version of they is grammatical correct and widely used for all kinds of situations.

  7. For those of us complaining to IPSO, could you provide a link to the OUSU policy document and, if possible, evidence of the claim that this was the evidence that they used for the story (e.g. an email exchange with you)?

  8. T G, language changes, but there is a difference between changes that take place naturally over a long period of time (such as the loss of thou/thee/thy) and changes that are discussed and debated consciously and then are attempted to be introduced in a very short period of time. In fact, I think the gradual movement of a language is an argument against this kind of interventionism or prescriptivism. Language is hard to control. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t try, but I don’t agree that your example is good evidence of a precedent.

  9. I don’t believe in using made up words for the purpose of being politically correct. That and the elimination of the terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are leading us to a society very similar to that of ‘1984’. In the story, language was being altered in the form of new editions of the dictionary coming out frequently to erase improper language. It also spoke of the complete annihilation of the traditional family unit.

    We are very close, friends. Very close indeed to complete totalitarian rule. Fight political correctness in any way that you can. There are far more of us than there are of them.

  10. […] These trauma workshops have been offered since October. However, they appear to have been used by the MailOnline in light of the Sunday Times‘ claim that Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) had released a leaflet that “told” students to use ‘ze’ as a gender neutral pronoun in place of ‘he’ and ‘she’, which Cherwell revealed to be untrue last week. […]

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