Inclusive Language

Language must continually evolve with our understanding and acceptance of diverse groups of people. This page attempts to guide writers in communicating accurately and sensitively in a manner that respects all human beings. The first part of this page is dedicated to inclusive language in general with examples for many contexts. The second part is a detailed look at using gender inclusive language

Inclusive Language

What is inclusive language? 

Inclusive language is language that is free from words, phrases or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It is also language that does not deliberately or inadvertently exclude people from being seen as part of a group. Inclusive language is sometimes called non-discriminatory language. 

Stereotyping means presuming a range of things about people based on one or two of their personal characteristics such as their appearance, apparent intelligence, personality or character, or their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, age, location, socioeconomic status or disability. 

Stereotypes are usually used in a negative way and are often evidence of prejudice against others. Even when a remark or action based on a stereotype is not based on a conscious prejudice, it can still be hurtful and cause harm or damage to the person. 

Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.

Toni Morrison

Why is inclusive language important? 

Language is our main form of communication and it plays a powerful role both in contributing to and in eliminating discrimination. Non-discriminatory language avoids false assumptions about people and helps to promote respectful relationships. A commitment to inclusive language is an important attribute of a modern, diverse and inclusive society. Inclusive language enables everyone to feel that they are being reflected in what is being said. back to top

Principles of inclusive language 

  • Any group interactions should be applied with care and consideration, with an awareness of the diversity within and between groups, and always be couched in inclusive terms.
  • Use people-centric language, which focuses on the person and reflects the individuality of people. People-centric language does not classify or stereotype people based on their association or identity with a group or culture. 
  • Only reference personal attributes or characteristics when it is relevant to the context.
  • Consider a strengths-based approach (recognizing the resilience of individuals and focusing on abilities, knowledge and capacities), rather than a deficit approach (focusing on deficiencies or supposed failings of a person, or group of people). 
  • Where appropriate, ask about the language the person prefers and respect their wishes.Do not make assumptions about people or their characteristics based on stereotypes or limited information. 
  • Be conscious of the implications of your language. Avoid excluding others or making people invisible by your choice of language. Avoid language and expressions that disparage or trivialize others. 
  • Where possible, empower the person or group to speak for themselves.

If you do need to speak on the behalf of a group of people, it is very important that you consult widely to ensure that the language you use is reflective of the group. 

  • Address and remove stereotypes and myths. If someone uses inappropriate language in your presence speak out against it and correct the inappropriate language used, if safe.
  • Ensure that the language and the delivery of your material is accessible to a diverse audience with diverse needs.
  • Be aware of the context of the language being used. Some terms are ok to use by people as a means of claiming their identity, but are not ok, and can be seen as derogatory, when used by others. back to top

Examples 

Please see the table below for some examples of good practice inclusive language when referring to a person's characteristics, or a group of people, and examples of language to avoid. 

GENDER
Good Practice Inclusive Language Language and Practice to Avoid
  • Only use gendered language when it is appropriate for the context, e.g., use the Chair rather than Chairman. 
  • Ask someone what their preferred pronouns are (e.g., he, she, they, zie) and respectfully use them correctly.
  • Use gender-neutral pronouns where possible, e.g., avoid 'the new employer may exercise his right' and instead use 'the new employer may exercise their right'. 
  • Use gender-neutral pronouns where possible, e.g., avoid 'the new employer may exercise his right' and instead use 'the new employer may exercise their right'.
  • Don't make an assumption about someone's gender based on their name or physical features
  • Don't use gender references in a demeaning or trivializing way, e.g., 'throw like a girl'. 
  • Do not infantilize particular groups (referring to groups or individuals as a child or in a way which denies their maturity in age or experience), for example, the 'girls in the office'. 
CULTURE
Good Practice Inclusive Language Language and Practice to Avoid 
  • Only reference someone's cultural background when it is appropriate for the context. Generally it is unnecessary to refer to someone's cultural background, but if you do need to use people-centric language, e.g., person of Sudanese decent. 
  • Educate yourself on someone's culture and respect cultural differences that may be present. In cross-cultural communication, writers should ensure that language is simple and accessible and body language is not offensive. 
  • Avoid undue emphasis on differences, e.g., introducing all your colleagues, but describing one as 'Chinese'.
  • Avoid making someone's culture invisible, e.g., the use of umbrella terms such as 'Asians' ignores the multiple ethnicities within Asia. Instead refer to the person's ethnicity where appropriate, e.g., Indonesian, Chinese, etc. 
 
DISABILITY
Good Practice Inclusive Language Language and Practice to Avoid  
  • Use people-centric language: the disability doesn't define the person; i.e., person with disability or people with disability.
  • Use a strength-based approach, such as 'person experiencing poor mental health', rather than 'they are schizophrenic' or 'crazy person'. 
  • Ensure that the language and delivery of your message is accessible to all audiences. Utilize the accessibility check in programs, such as Microsoft Word, and ensure that you practice website accessibility.  
  • Avoid inappropriate language such as cripple, handicapped, mental patient, and 'wheelchair bound', 'disabled person'. 
  • Avoid using language like 'retard' or 'spaz' in any way or context, e.g., 'the computer is having a spaz' or 'you are such a retard'. 
  • Avoid using 'inspiration porn' language, e.g., saying someone with a disability is 'an inspiration' or 'brave' or 'amazing' for doing everyday things such as going to work. 
  • Never make assumptions about disability, some disabilities may be invisible.  
SEXUALITY
Good Practice Inclusive Language Language and Practice to Avoid   
  • If you do not know, use inclusive language such as 'partner' (rather than 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'), to refer to someone's significant other, unless the preferred term is specified by the person.
  • Consider referring to 'sexuality, gender, and sex diversity' rather than the LGBTI acronym to be more inclusive. 
  • Avoid using 'gay' in a derogatory way, e.g., 'that's so gay'.
  • Avoid using the word 'queer' as this can be offensive to some people. Generally 'queer' is used by some of the community.
  • Avoid making assumptions about someone's sexuality, or building stereotypes, e.g., 'he must be gay, he is so flamboyant'. 
 
AGE
Good Practice Inclusive Language Language and Practice to Avoid  
  • Only refer to age when relevant to the context, and when it is necessary use people-centric language, e.g., 'older adults' or 'younger people'.
 
  • Avoid stereotypes, e.g., 'old men are grumpy', 'old people will not adapt to new technologies' or 'Millennials are compulsive job-hoppers'. 


In using inclusive language, it is useful to keep the following generic questions in mind:

  • Is it necessary to refer to a person or groups' personal characteristics?
  • If it is, are the references to personal characteristics couched in inclusive terms?
  • Do the references to people reflect the diversity of the intended audience, and is the material accessible to the intended audience?
  • Are you excluding people in the design and delivery of your material?  

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Gender Inclusive Language

This page will help you make decisions about using gendered language in your writing. 

What is gendered language, and why should you be aware of it? 

You have probably encountered documents that use masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to subject(s) whose gender is unclear or variable, or to groups that contain people who are not actually men. For example, the U.S. Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” Generations of Americans have been taught that in this context, the word “men” should be read as including both men and women. Other common instances of gendered language include words that assume connections between jobs or roles and gender (like “policeman”) and language conventions that differ depending on the gender of the person being discussed (like using titles that indicate a person’s marital status). 

English has changed since the Declaration of Independence was written. Most readers no longer understand the word “man” to be synonymous with “person,” so clear communication requires writers to be more precise. And using gender-neutral language has become standard practice in both journalistic and academic writing, as you’ll see if you consult the style manuals for different academic disciplines (APA, MLA, and Chicago, for example). back to top

Below are several strategies that may help you use gender-inclusive language in writing:  

Gendered Nouns 

“Man” and words ending in “-man” are the most commonly used gendered nouns in English. These words are easy to spot and replace with more neutral language, even in contexts where many readers strongly expect the gendered noun. For example, Star Trek writers developing material for contemporary viewers were able to create a more inclusive version of the famous phrase “where no man has gone before” while still preserving its pleasing rhythm: Star Trek explorers now venture “where no one has gone before.” 

Below is a list of gendered nouns and some alternatives that writers can choose.  Check a thesaurus for alternatives to gendered nouns not included in this list. 

Gendered Noun Gender-Neutral Noun 
man person, individual
mankind people, human beings, humanity
freshman first-year student
man-made machine-made, synthetic, artificial
the common man the average person
chairman chair, chairperson, coordinator, head
mailman mail carrier, letter carrier, postal worker
steward, stewardess flight attendant
actor, actress actor
congresman legislator, congressional representative
Sir (in "Dear Sir", etc.) Dear Sir or Madam, Dear Editor, Dear Members of the Search Committee, To Whom it May Concern

Sometimes writers modify nouns that refer to jobs or positions to indicate the sex of the person holding that position. This happens most often when the sex of the person goes against conventional expectations. For example, some people may assume, perhaps unconsciously, that doctors are men and that nurses are women. Sentences like “The female doctor walked into the room” or “The male nurse walked into the room” reinforce such assumptions. Unless the sex of the subject is important to the meaning of the sentence, it should be omitted. (Here’s an example where the health care professional’s sex might be relevant: “Some women feel more comfortable seeing female gynecologists.”) back to top

Titles and names 

Another example of gendered language is the way the titles “Mr.,” “Miss,” and “Mrs.” are used. “Mr.” can refer to any man, regardless of whether he is single or married, but “Miss” and “Mrs.” define women by whether they are married, which until quite recently meant defining them by their relationships with men. A simple alternative when addressing or referring to a woman is “Ms.” (which doesn’t indicate marital status). 

Another note about titles: some college students are in the habit of addressing most women older than them, particularly teachers, as “Mrs.,” regardless of whether the woman in question is married. It’s worth knowing that many female faculty and staff (including married women) prefer to be addressed as “Ms.” or, if the term applies, “Professor” or “Dr.” 

Writers sometimes refer to women using only their first names in contexts where they would typically refer to men by their full names, last names, or titles. But using only a person’s first name is more informal and can suggest a lack of respect. For example, in academic writing, we don’t refer to William Shakespeare as “William” or “Will”; we call him “Shakespeare” or “William Shakespeare.” So we should refer to Jane Austen as “Austen” or “Jane Austen,” not just “Jane.” 

Similarly, in situations where you would refer to a man by his full title, you should do the same for a woman. For example, if you wouldn’t speak of American President Reagan “Ronald” or “Ronnie,” avoid referring to British Prime Minister Thatcher as “Margaret” or “Maggie.” back to top

Pronouns 

A pronoun is a word that substitutes for a noun. The English language provides pronoun options for references to masculine nouns (for example, “he” can substitute for “Juan”), feminine nouns (“she” can replace “Keisha”), and neutral/non-human nouns (“it” can stand in for “a tree”). But English offers no widely-accepted pronoun choice for gender-neutral, third-person singular nouns that refer to people (“the writer,” “a student,” or “someone”). As previously mentioned, the practice of using masculine pronouns (“he,” “his,” “him”) as the “default” is outdated and will confuse or offend many readers. 

The writer has several options when faced with one of those gender-neutral or gender-ambiguous language situations:  

  1. Use more than one pronoun
  2. Alternate genders and pronouns

In situations where a pronoun needs to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known, writers sometimes use “he or she” or “he/she” (or even “s/he”), “her/him,” etc. Putting the masculine form first is more conventional; “she or he” may distract readers but does make the point that women are not just being added onto the generic “he.” 

Here are some examples: 

When the winner has been selected, she or he will be advanced to the next round of the competition. 

OR 

Our agreement is that the first person who picks up his or her cell phone must treat the rest of the group to dinner. 

Using “she or he” or similar constructions can also inadvertently exclude people who do not refer to themselves using either pronoun. 

Another strategy for gender-aware writers is alternating genders, using masculine pronouns in some places and feminine ones in others. This option will work only in certain situations, though—usually hypothetical situations in which the referent is equally likely to be male or female. For example, students of all genders use the Writing Center’s services, so the author of our staff manual chose to alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns when writing the items in a list of guidelines for writing coaches: 

Ask her to describe her purpose and audience and show how she has taken them into account in her writing. 

Respond as a reader, explaining what you were thinking as you read his text so that he can discover where a reader might struggle with his writing. 

Of course, our staff manual writer had other options, like including both pronouns in each sentence by using “her/his” or “her/him.” In this case, though, alternating “he” and “she” conveys the same sense of gender variability and is likely a little easier on the reader, who won’t have to pause to process several different options every time a gendered pronoun is needed in the sentence. 

  1. Try making the nouns and pronouns plural
  2. Use “they” as a singular pronoun

If it works for your particular sentence, using plural forms is often an excellent option. Here’s an example of a sentence that can easily be rephrased: 

A student who loses too much sleep may have trouble focusing during [his/her] exams. 

If we make “student” plural and adjust the rest of the sentence accordingly, there’s no need for gendered language (and no confusion or loss of meaning): 

Students who lose too much sleep may have trouble focusing during their exams. 

Most of the time, the word “they” refers to a plural antecedent. For example, 

Because experienced hikers know that weather conditions can change rapidly, they often dress in layers. 

Some people are strongly opposed to the use of “they” with singular antecedents and are likely to react badly to writing that uses this approach. Others argue that “they” should be adopted as English’s standard third-person, gender-neutral pronoun in all writing and speaking contexts. Keep your audience in mind as you decide whether the singular “they” is a good solution for any gender-related problems in your writing. back to top

Checklist for gender-related revisions 

As you review your writing, ask yourself the following questions: 

  1. Have you used “man” or “men” or words containing them to refer to people who may not be men? 
  2. Have you used “he,” “him,” “his,” or “himself” to refer to people who may not be men?
  3. If you have mentioned someone’s sex or gender, was it necessary to do so?
  4. Do you use any occupational (or other) stereotypes?
  5. Do you provide the same kinds of information and descriptions when writing about people of different genders? 

One way to test for gender-inclusive language is to imagine a diverse group of people reading your paper. Would each reader feel respected?  Envisioning the audience is a critical skill in every writing context, and revising with a focus on gendered language is a perfect opportunity to practice. 

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References for Inclusive Language

APA Style. Retrieved from http://www.apastyle.org/  

Benson, E. J., Kemp, T. D., PIrlott, A., Coughlin, C., Forss, Q., & Becherer, L. (2013). Developing a Nonsexist/Nongendered Language Policy. Feminist Teacher, 23(3), 230-247.  

Gender-Inclusive Language. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/gender-inclusive-language/

Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage. 3rd Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.  

Kolln, Martha. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 2nd Ed.  

Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The St. Martin's Handbook. 3rd Ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.   

Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010.   

Wright, L. (2012). Inclusive Language Guidelines. University of Wollongong 

 

Sources for Gender-Inclusive Language

Harris, Muriel. Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar and Usage. 3rd Ed. Upper Saddle 

River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997. 

Kolln, Martha. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 2nd Ed. 

Lunsford, Andrea and Robert Connors. The St. Martin's Handbook. 3rd Ed. New York: St. 

Martin's Press, 1991.  

Publication manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010.  

Some of the material in this page are from: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill