How to Use Inclusive Language to Make Your Writing Shine
Inclusive Language has been a filter in professional editing check-lists for decades. It’s a staple of effective communication and is an important part of many countries’ anti-discrimination laws. In addition to fighting linguistic discrimination, Inclusive Language directly strengthens the author-reader relationship, and is an important tool for all writing.
Inclusive Language might be a concept you know well, or have never heard of before. It might be something you already practice in your writing without knowing, or something you might need to work on. This guide is here to define what Inclusive Language is, how it should be used, and how it can help improve your writing before your work hits the editor’s inbox (or before you hit publish).
Inclusive Language: a definition
Most definitions do a poor job describing the expanse of Inclusive Language. Both Dictionary.com and Collins Dictionary define Inclusive Language as: “language that avoids the use of certain expressions or words that might be considered to exclude particular groups of people”. However, from both a writing and editing perspective, this definition only highlights a very small section of the role Inclusive Language plays in audience-text interaction.
Inclusive Language covers a broad spectrum of checks and balances. These include the legal requirements in the country the text is being published; the general acknowledgement and understanding of audience diversity; and the usage of correct terms, punctuation, phrasing and spelling pertaining to all groups within the text.
This may seem like a lot to deal with as a writer. Thankfully, Inclusive Language can be condensed into several, simple categories to filter your writing through as you progress through your drafts.
The role of Inclusive Language in writing: why it’s necessary
Inclusive Language is tied to both effective communication and to the author-audience relationship. It is not political. Inclusive Language allows the audience to understand the text and feel respected within it. Without this relationship, the potential for miscommunication and audience-disengagement becomes rife.
For the most part, Inclusive Language is a focus in non-fiction writing. Whether it’s general non-fiction, journalism, essay, informational text (for public distribution), academic work, or technical guides.
In the same way dictionaries are frequently updated with new words to replace older words, Inclusive Language also continually evolves. Inclusive Language changes with the increased knowledge of group and individual preferences; with the acceptance of new terms or reclaiming of old terms; and with the changing relationship between writers and their audiences thanks to technological advancements in publishing and feedback channels.
The application of Inclusive Language also changes with context. In journalism, for example, the guides for Inclusive Language are bent slightly because journalists under public information laws are allowed to describe (sometimes-irrelevant) profiles of individuals, using aspects such as their age, ethnicity, and gender. Similarly, in the medium of personal essay, Inclusive Language may become redundant because the writer is describing their own personal experience and identity. However, in both these examples, Inclusive Language still applies when generalising or when referring to groups of people.
The elements of Inclusive Language: a guide
The written word is educational and foundational to society, but has also played a role in reinforcing stereotypes, discrimination, and inequality. The publishing industry is continually evolving to try and combat these problems by using checks such as Inclusive Language to reach, respect, and elevate, a wider audience.
Inclusive treatment of genders: It is standard in many forms of publishing to use gender-free references, when gender is not essential to the sentence. As a rule of thumb, if gender, sex, or marital status is not pertinent to the content, it does not need to be mentioned because it may disproportionately limit the subject, or the reader, to those characteristics.
Within sentences, the singular or plural ‘they’, or singular ‘you’, can be used instead of gendered pronouns (she, he, him, her). The use of ‘they’ or ‘you’ should also replace the slash format of ‘she/him’, ‘he/her’ etc., as the all-inclusive, less-cumbersome option.
Many sentences can also be rewritten to avoid pronouns entirely. For example, the phrase: ‘A writer should always edit his or her work before it is published’. Can be changed to: ‘A writer’s work should always be edited before it is published’. Or even: ‘Work should always be edited before it is published’.
Correct use of occupational titles is also part of inclusive writing. Gender-exclusive titles should always be replaced with the appropriate, gender-free title, such as ‘fireman’ being replaced by ‘fire-fighter’. Gender-specific titles should also be replaced by gender-free titles, for example ‘actress’ being relaced by ‘actor’, and ‘male nurse’ replaced by ‘nurse’. Appropriate titles can usually be found with a simple search.
Finally, if it is pertinent to mention gender when referring to a specific individual, then only the gender and pronouns they specify should be used. It is unnecessary and harmful to do otherwise. Remove any variations of: ‘____, who used to be a man’, or ‘____ is a woman who identifies as non-binary’. These phrases directly go against Inclusive Language and reflect poorly on the work.
Inclusive treatment of disabled people: As with many communities and groups, inclusive treatment of disabled people requires both generic language and specific language, depending on the context. Generic language includes terms like: ‘Deaf community’ and ‘Deaf culture’. While specific language includes terms like: ‘deaf ’ and ‘hard of hearing’. It is important to find out both the correct generic language and the correct specific language before using either.
On this note, many writers who studied in the 90s or 00s might have been taught that person-first language is the default preference when referring to disabled people (like the broad term: ‘people with autism’). However, for many disabled people, person-first language erases their identity and additionally designates their disability as an ‘affliction’. So, when writing broadly, it is better to use identity/disability-first language (such as: ‘autistic people’), to recognise identity and maintain linguistic equality.
Individual people may have a different preference to this guideline for generic language. So, when using person-specific language (like: ‘autistic person’ or ‘vision impaired person’), writers should always check with the individual to find out the terminology and word order they use for themselves.
When screening for inclusive treatment of disabled people in writing it is important to look for, and remove, any ableist or gratuitous comments. Ableist writing covers any derogatory, negative, or abusive notions about mental and physical disability. Gratuitous comments are phrases like: ‘he is truly an inspiration’, or ‘they have overcome their limits to achieve highly’, or ‘we don’t see her as disabled’. These kinds of comments and frameworks reduce disabled people’s existence, experience, and humanity.
Inclusivity of age ranges: References to age should only be made when the text requires it. Unnecessary references to age can contribute to ageism — whether intentional or not — and to the exclusion of large portions of society. When references to age are contextually necessary, the appropriate language should be used. This includes using age-specific language (‘people over 65’), generational terms (‘Generation X’), and careful, limited use of generalised demographics (‘older people’, ‘younger people’, ‘adolescents’). Remember that terms like ‘old’ and ‘young’ are relative.
Writers should always consider the age range of their target demographic and acknowledge that people either side of that range may still read their work. Age-inclusive language can be optimised by using words, phrases, and explanations in a mindful way. Understand that older and newer idioms can sometimes limit accessibility.
To aid in optimisation, additional information such as definitions or bracketed explanations (for terms, idioms, and acronyms), can be used to ensure clear communication for readers that exist either side of the writer’s personal age group. This also keeps readers engaged, as they are not required to go and search terms before they can continue reading.
Inclusivity of Queer identities: Stereotyping, gratuitous use of identity, or ‘outing’ someone against their will should all be avoided when referring to Queer identities. Both general and specific terms apply when referring to Queer communities and individuals.
In much of American, Australasian, and UK publishing, the most common terms (often called ‘umbrella terms’) for referring to the Queer community as a whole are: ‘LGBT+’, ‘LGBTQIA+’, and ‘Queer Commuity’. (It may be necessary to check which terms are preferred by the publishers and Queer organisations in your country.) Many publications maintain a preference for one term in order to maintain consistent inclusivity across all the content they publish. The terms ‘Queer community’, and ’Queer people’ are mainly used by writers or publications who identify as queer themselves.
Singular identity terms should not be used to refer to the whole Queer community, for example: ‘the Gay community’ cannot replace ‘the LGBT+ community’. And exclusionary changes should never be made to umbrella acronyms, for example: writing ‘LGB’ instead of ‘LGBT+’. The plus sign is frequently used by publishers to encompass all identities.
The correct terms for specific identities within the LGBT+ community should always be used (‘a gay person’, not ‘a homosexual’), as well as correct formatting (‘bisexual’, not ‘bi-sexual’). Only writers from specific LGBT+ identities can use alternative terms (for example: lesbians might use the term ‘dyke’, or non-binary people might use ‘enby’).
The correct identity (including name, gender, and orientation) should always be used in accordance with the person being referred to. Mentioning a ‘previous’ identity is incorrect and unnecessary.
Be aware of phrases that might be considered homophobic, re-enforcing of stereotypes, or harmful. For example: ‘openly gay’ implies identity is forcibly performative (if contextually necessary, ‘out’ could be used); ‘lifestyle’ implies a choice and is considered homophobic; ‘sexual preference’ also implies a choice (if contextually necessary, ‘sexual orientation’ can be used). Always check for appropriate, current terms through a search.
References to ethnicity, ethnic groups and cultural identity: Cultural and linguistic diversity exists in many countries, and in all online spaces. Acknowledgement of this audience diversity is part of ensuring inclusivity and respectful treatment of readers.
When writing, ethnicity and cultural identity do not need to be mentioned unless contextually welcome (this is in order to avoid gratuitous stereotyping and invocation of bias). Inclusive Language pertaining to ethnicity and cultural identity exists in both general and specific terms; both are useful and appropriate depending on the context.
When using general phrasing, referring to all communities within a country is acceptable through the use of that country’s name (Americans, Australians, Fijians, Egyptians), which includes all who live there, not just those who were born there. Indigenous cultures and communities should always be referred to by the correct, encompassing identity using capitals (Maori, Native American, Indigenous Canadian). The terms ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ are appropriate in general-usage when referring to people who have recently moved to a country, because they help to avoid singling out any specific group. However, these terms should never be used in a derogatory framework.
When being specific, there are often regional, localised, and group-specific terms for ethnic and cultural identities. It is important to look up the correct spelling, capitalisation, and region, when using these names (such as: Tlingit, Lebanese-American, Chinese-Canadian, Ainu, etc.). Sometimes, localised spellings can differ, and in these cases the general spelling should be used first and the alternative spellings included in brackets: ‘Noongar (Noongah, Nyungar) people’.
Be aware of cultural differences when using personal names. Always check with credited sources, or the individual themselves (if applicable), how a name should be written. For example, many cultures present family name first, but people who have moved to English-speaking countries may have reversed this. It is important to check which is contextually preferable.
Slurs and slang terms should never be used when referring to ethnic groups one is not part of, because this abuses the writer’s power over identity and narrative. Many words that might have been commonplace in the past when referring to ethnic groups or cultural identities are xenophobic, and so a writer should always check through search to understand if a term is acceptable.
Audience acknowledgement and respect: Many forms of author-audience interaction exist in writing. Authors might directly address the audience through the ‘you’ pronoun. But the interaction may be more subtle, such as when the author refers to a certain group (which the reader may be part of) in-text. This ‘audience-referring’ can be deliberate or sometimes accidental. Authors always need to consider who they may be addressing in their writing, so that audience may be afforded inclusive treatment.
Author-audience respect is essential for maintaining reader engagement. This is especially relevant in educational, informative, or call-to-action writing, where inducing positive belief in the audience can greatly aid in getting the author’s message across. This respect is formed through the use of Inclusive Language as it has been described above, as well as through tone. Tone, or attitude, in writing is created through diction and syntax — word choice and arrangement. Avoiding belittling and arrogant tones are helpful in this endeavour.
Keep in mind, this aspect of Inclusive Language does not discourage authors from confronting their audience with information, emotion, or personal stories — preservation of author voice and narrative is always important. Inclusive Language simply asks authors to consider the most effective tone for their writing. It’s a subjective consideration, but one that should always be thought over during the drafting process.
Above all, authors should examine their writing from the perspective of a diverse audience (one which may be boarder than the target demographic), and consider what relationship their work creates with those readers. Inclusive Language is complicated, and not everything can be caught in drafts or in editing, so listening to readers’ responses to the work post-publishing is also humbly important.
How to use Inclusive Language: a checklist
- Have you considered the possible diversities within your audience?
- Does your writing accommodate the reading needs of your audience?
- Are there any stereotyped, unnecessary, or degrading references in your writing?
- Have calls to action or suggested actions been written in encouraging terms wherever possible, to increase the likelihood of their success with your audience?
- Have you checked the correct spelling, capitalisation, and contextual use of terms in your work?
- Is your writing inclusive toward your audience, and aware of their possible sensitivities or language preferences?
- Is the tone of the piece suitable for both the subject and the readers?
- Have you taken the time to correct any Inclusive Language mistakes that editors and consultants (pre-publishing), or readers and commenters (post-publishing) have pointed out in your writing?