Reports that Oxford students were told to use gender-neutral pronoun ‘ze’ shown to be false

Joanna Taylor 15 December 2016

Claims that Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) instructed students to use ‘ze’ as a gender-neutral pronoun in the place of ‘he’ and ‘she’ made by The Sunday Times earlier this week have been rejected as false. 

In an article published on the 11 December 2016, reporters Sian Griffiths and Luke Mintz claimed that the practice was outlined in a students’ union leaflet, and that students “hope the use of gender neutral pronouns will be extended to lectures and seminars”. 

They also assert that the move “is intended to stop transgender students being offended” and that “Cambridge is moving in the same direction”. 

OUSU wholly rejected the claims, which were picked up by The Independent and The Daily Mail, and issued a statement saying “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.”

Sian Griffiths, Sunday Times Education Editor, told Oxford publication Cherwell that the main source for the story was an OUSU policy document published in June 2016, which states that individuals should state their preferred pronouns at OUSU policy meetings. The document makes no reference to the pronoun ‘ze’. 

Fake news, the fabrication or gross exaggeration of stories, was labelled the "2016 Lie of the Year" by US publication PolitiFact, with some publications being entirely dedicated to the practice. The Sunday Times's story shares similarities with this current phenomenon, in that it draws on existing concerns about political correctness and was subsequently widely reported on. 

Russia Today, The Times of India, and The Huffington Post each picked up the story. Cherwell has contacted these publications, plus The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times itself, for comment.


This article was amended on 04/01/17.