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. One example is using ‘he’ as a generic pronoun, a practice that was used in UK legislation until 2007.

An inclusive slogan on a colourful board – You belong
Inclusive language is for everyone
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

While this kind of gendered language is now relatively rare, it still lingers 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 no one would argue that we should be saying ‘you is’.

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.

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 both how you say something and what you’re saying in the first place.

None of us can claim to understand the experience of every group or person on the planet, so if you’re writing about a specific topic or for a certain community, do your research. Many advocacy groups have published advice on how (and how not) to write about their community. You might also consider working with a sensitivity reader, particularly if you’re writing fiction with a focus on a specific issue of representation.

Different perspectives

In our efforts to be inclusive in our writing, it’s also important to remember that no group is homogenous – such is the beauty of diversity. So while one person with a certain experience might be quite happy to use a particular word, another might find it offensive. Even the major editorial style guides can’t agree on how to approach some topics. The key here is to remain open-minded, read around the topic and make an informed, reasoned choice. And if someone makes the effort to explain why something you’ve written might be problematic, take the 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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