A Short Guide to Inclusive Language

May 15, 2023 by Professional Studies Staff

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By now, most institutions, schools and businesses have taken steps to establish equity, diversity and inclusion programs. Their purpose, according to equity, diversity, and inclusion consultant Dr. Anita Jack-Davies, “is to address barriers faced by traditionally underrepresented groups in the workplace.” Underrepresented groups include

  • women
  • racialized peoples
  • people with disabilities
  • First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities
  • LGBTQIA+ communities

Very briefly, equity is about fairness, diversity is about valuing differences, and inclusion is the engagement of equity and diversity.

According to the Linguistic Society of America in its Guidelines for Inclusive Language, inclusive language is defined as a “language that acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.”

  Inclusive language is free from words, phrases, and tone that reflect discriminatory or stereotyped views of underrepresented people or groups.

Observing the following guidelines will help you achieve your goals of equity, diversity and inclusion in your workplace.

1. Use inclusive language

If you’re tasked with writing or editing content that includes terms associated with equity, diversity and inclusion, it’s important to avoid bias and to use inclusive language. Inclusive language is free from words, phrases, and tone that reflect discriminatory or stereotyped views of underrepresented people or groups.

One suggestion for using inclusive language is to ask individuals or groups which terms and expressions they prefer to use. This includes preferred pronouns, as well as other language choices that align with their identities and experiences. It’s also important to adopt gender-neutral language, such as using they as a singular pronoun. Many editing associations and style manuals, including APA and AP, endorse this approach to avoid bias and use acceptable vocabulary. Additionally, it is important to avoid stereotypes and culturally appropriative language, and to be aware of ableist language, such as using terms like crazy or lame.

Here are some practical examples of how to use inclusive language:

  • Use non-gendered language

    Use non-gendered language to avoid perpetuating gender stereotypes. Instead of using he or she, use they or their.

    What to do: “The candidate will need to submit their resume and cover letter.”

    What not to do: “The candidate will need to submit his resume and cover letter.”

  • Use culturally appropriate language

    Avoid using language that stereotypes or appropriates other cultures. For example, avoid using phrases like spirit animal or pow wow unless you are referring specifically to Indigenous cultures.

    What to do: “That really resonates with me” instead of “That’s my spirit animal.”

    What not to do: “Let’s pow wow to discuss this further.”

  • Avoid ableist language

    Avoid using language that is offensive or derogatory toward people with disabilities. For example, avoid using the word lame as a negative descriptor, as it reinforces negative stereotypes about people with mobility impairments.

    What to do: “That’s not a viable option” instead of “That’s lame.”

    What not to do: “I can’t believe you’re using a wheelchair, I feel sorry for you.”

2. Update your knowledge

Language conventions change over time, and so do the acceptability of terms that refer to underrepresented people and groups. So, it’s a good idea to check in regularly to see if a term you’re using is considered current.

For example, Greg Younging says in Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples that the term Aboriginal, which is still an appropriate term, “is being replaced by Indigenous—a choice often made by Indigenous Peoples themselves.” Similarly, Anita Jack-Davies notes that the term people of colour has fallen out of use, and that racialized peoples is now the more acceptable term.

While it may seem overwhelming to stay up to date with current inclusive language terminology, there are several resources available to support you in this effort. Read on.

3. Explore inclusive language resources

Here are some resources we love. They can help you stay current and up to date on inclusivity.

  • Conscious Style Guide

    Conscious Style Guide, founded by Karen Yin, is a website dedicated to promoting the use of conscious language to empower instead of limit. It provides style guides covering terminology for various communities and articles debating usage to help writers and editors think critically about language.

  • Editing Canadian English, 3rd Edition, Chapter 2: Inclusivity

    Editing Canadian English, by Editors Canada, devotes an entire chapter to the principles and considerations regarding inclusive language and the editor’s role in observing and maintaining best practices. “It isn’t the editor’s job to set standards for inclusive, non-racist, and non-stereotyped use of language. It is, however, the editor’s job to ensure that bias does not creep into the text” (2.1, Principles to consider).

  • Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples

    Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, by Gregory Younging, is a guide for writers and editors to navigate style and process issues when creating works about Indigenous Peoples. It provides advice on culturally appropriate publishing practices, terminology, and specific editing issues, with case studies of best practices.

  • Gender-Neutral Writing: The Pronoun Problem

    This article by Frances Peck explores the challenges and solutions of gender-neutral writing in the English language, specifically regarding pronoun usage. It provides a rundown of where some sources stand on using the singular they in formal writing. Overall, gender-neutral language is essential for avoiding bias and stereotypes in professional writing.

  • National Center on Disability and Journalism: Disability Language Style Guide

    The Disability Language Style Guide offers guidance for journalists and communicators on how to refer to people with disabilities. Some basic guidelines include referring to a disability only when relevant, using caution with words like disorder and special. The guide also emphasizes the fact that language preferences differ among individuals, and it encourages double-checking on a case-by-case basis.

  • Words Matter: Guidelines on Using Inclusive Language in the Workplace

    The Words Matter guide from the BC Public Service provides principles and suggestions to support using inclusive language in the workplace. Inclusive language is free from discriminatory views and does not exclude individuals. The guide emphasizes the importance of building and maintaining a respectful workplace and offers tips for supervisors and employees to reinforce inclusion and diversity. The guide also encourages curiosity, seeking out diverse perspectives, and having an empathetic mindset when using inclusive language.

The use of inclusive language is essential in creating an environment that values diversity, promotes inclusivity, and fosters a positive work culture. By following the guidelines and examples provided in this blog, you can help to ensure that your language is free from prejudice, stereotypes, and discriminatory views, which will help to encourage an accepting and respectful workplace. Remember, inclusive language is not only about using preferred pronouns. It is also about avoiding stereotypes and cultural appropriation, being mindful of ableist language, and using non-gendered language. Let’s continue to educate ourselves, be curious and empathetic, and champion inclusion and diversity in all our communications. Together, we can make a difference and create a more inclusive and equitable world.

Want to learn more about writing and editing bias-free, inclusive content? Consider enrolling in the Professional Editing Standards Certificate at Professional Studies, Queen’s University. This program will equip you with the foundational knowledge and skills needed to work to industry standards in all editing disciplines. By learning about inclusive language and how to apply it, you can produce content that is welcoming to all readers, while also identifying your strengths and areas for growth. Investing in your skills and knowledge will not only benefit your career but will also contribute to a more inclusive and equitable society. Sign up for the Professional Editing Standards Certificate today.

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