What is inclusive language and how can I use it in my writing?

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If you write or are responsible for any kind of written content, chances are you’ll have come across the terms ‘inclusive language’, ‘conscious language’ or ‘gender neutral language’.

But what are they? Let’s look at some inclusive language examples and what they mean for your writing.


What is inclusive language?

Let’s start with what inclusive language isn’t.

By definition, language that isn’t inclusive excludes certain people or groups. This might be obvious, such as using derogatory terms or offensive stereotypes, but excluding language can also be more insidious.

An inclusive slogan on a colourful board – You belong

Inclusive language is for everyone
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

An obvious example of excluding language is using ‘he’ as a generic pronoun, a practice used in UK legislation until 2007.

While this kind of overtly gendered language is now relatively rare, it lingers more subtly in nouns like ‘chairman’, ‘manpower’ or even ‘mankind’.

These words might seem innocuous enough, but the implication of ‘chairman’, even if unintentional, is that this kind of role is only open to men or that it’s unusual for anyone else to have such a position.

Fortunately, many of these terms have easy swaps – try ‘chair’ or ‘humankind’ – but others might require careful rephrasing. (If you can think of a gender-neutral alternative for ‘manpower’, we’d love to know!)


Gender neutral language

Some writers have replaced the generic ‘he’ pronoun with ‘he or she’, but as more people start to question the validity of gender binaries, many writers prefer to use ‘they’.

The singular ‘they’ is nothing new: the Oxford English Dictionary has found examples of this usage as early as 1375. And, given that it can take time for spoken language to make its way into written form, the OED suspects the singular ‘they’ has been around for much longer.

Be that as it may, the singular ‘they’ can take some getting used to grammatically speaking.

For example, you might be wondering whether the singular ‘they’ should be treated like the more familiar singular pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’, so you might be tempted to say ‘they is’, for instance.

But this instinctively sounds a little unusual, and grammar can back us up here. We’ve been using ‘you’ in the singular for centuries, and standard English grammar opts for ‘you are’ over ‘you is’. It follows that we can use ‘they are’ with a clear grammatical conscience even when we’re referring to just one person.


Conscious language

Inclusive language isn’t just about being gender neutral, of course.

Any phrases that make implicit judgements (‘pregnant women and their husbands’) or that single people out for belonging to a certain group for no reason (‘the Asian nurse’) are essentially establishing a norm and ‘othering’ those who fall outside it.

These examples might also fall in the category of stereotypes and (inadvertently or not) discriminate against certain groups of people.

Thinking about language on this level takes us into the territory of what we might call ‘conscious language’, which, according to the Conscious Style Guide, is to ‘think critically about using language – including words, portrayals, framing, and representation – to empower instead of limit’.

In other words, conscious writing is about thinking deeply – not just about what you’re saying but how you’re saying it.


Do your research

A good place to start is consulting the experts.

There are a large number of invaluable online guides about using inclusive language in general and how to reduce bias in your writing, such as the Conscious Style Guide and the Diversity Style Guide.

When it comes to writing about specific topics or groups or for a certain community, it’s time to dig even deeper.

Many advocacy groups have also published advice on how (and how not) to write about their community. An example is the helpful glossary published by the National Deaf Children’s Society. You might also consider working with a sensitivity reader, particularly if you’re writing fiction with a focus on a specific issue of representation.


Key principles to remember

Be curious. Get into the habit of looking at words and common expressions critically. If a phrase sounds questionable or outdated, read up on it.

  • What might its origins be?

  • How might other people feel about it?

  • Are there any alternatives?

When you’re writing, ask yourself who you’re writing for.

  • What assumptions are you making about your reader? Why?

  • How does this impact what you’re writing and the words you’re using?

  • Could those assumptions – and the language you use – (inadvertently) exclude or alienate people?

When you want to use inclusive language, it’s important to think about a range of personal characteristics.

For example, does your content or word choice make assumptions about someone’s ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, appearance, religion or beliefs, family structures, disability, ability, age, nationality or socioeconomic status?

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t refer to any of these characteristics. While in many cases, it can be useful to make language more neutral – for example, using gender-neutral pronouns, as discussed above – sometimes failing to mention characteristics can be equally harmful, for example when health advice applies to different ethnic groups differently.

When you start thinking about it, you’ll start noticing how assumptions and beliefs can creep into what we say or write all the time – even when your intentions are to use inclusive terms and respect diverse groups.

What if I get it wrong?

Ultimately, inclusive language is always going to be subjective. Some terminology or phrases can be offensive in one context but not in another.

If this all feels overwhelming, it might be helpful to remember why you want to use inclusive language in the first place. Chances are, it’s not so much about following ‘rules’ as it is about protecting your readers from harm and accurately (and compassionately) communicating what you want to say.

So if someone makes the effort to explain why something you’ve written might be problematic, make the necessary changes – and, most importantly, take time to listen and learn.

A hand holding up a glass ball that inverts the view of the world – changing perspectives

Change your perspective to become more inclusive
Photo by Anika Huizinga on Unsplash

Language evolves

These kinds of discussions about language are happening because readers, writers and editors are recognising that the language we use now or have used in the past no longer fits the society we live in.

In other words, times change and language changes accordingly.

This also means we can’t call this ‘case closed’.

As writers and editors, we have a duty to keep up with broader discussions and changes in language as society evolves – and we plan to reflect these changes on our blog in future posts.

If you have any suggestions for topics you’d like us to explore in more detail, we’d love to hear from you!


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