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Inclusive language acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.3
One of the easiest ways to speak, write, and type inclusively is to use gender-inclusive language. Using inclusive language is a conscious effort to communicate to ourselves and others in a way that is aligned with our values — including being respectful to all of the members of our community who are different from us.
For the English language, there are only a few gender markers. They are:
- Pronouns and possessives (he, she, her, and his)
- Some nouns and forms of address (husband/wife, ma’am/sir)
Let’s dive in to see what some of the best practices and strategies are for using gender-inclusive language in English.
Avoid gender-biased expressions
We’ve all heard and used phrases that are gender-biased, “She throws like a girl.” Or, “Men just don’t understand.” When we use these phrases we’re reinforcing gender stereotypes. According to The United Nations, “Harmful gender stereotypes and wrongful gender stereotyping are one of the root causes for discrimination, abuse, and violence in manifold areas and can lead to violations of a wide array of human rights.”4
So, before we say or type a gender-biased phrase, we should think about the impact it can have on another person.
Use gender-neutral words
The English language is ever-evolving and, unfortunately, the evolution of language is messy. Meanings of words shift over time. For example, the gender-neutral word for humanity in the 1750s was “mann-cynn” which now, as “mankind”, is viewed as gendered. Today, we can use gender neutral words like humankind or humanity instead of mankind.
Other examples of gender-neutral words we can use are:
- Distinguished Guests, instead of Ladies and Gentlemen
- Everyone, instead of men or women
- “Person in the red shirt,” instead of, “The lady/man in the red shirt.”
- Theirs, instead of his or her
- Folks, instead of guys
Photos created and provided by GLAAD.
Use inclusive personal pronouns
Pronouns are one of many forms of gender expression. They are something that we use that gives people clues about who we are and what our gender is. For example, she, he, they, someone, and who. In English, we commonly refer to people using pronouns. Often, we have to make an assumption based on a person’s appearance or their name to figure out which pronouns to use. It can be offensive to guess someone’s pronouns instead of using the pronouns someone wants to be known by. As a very simple example, let’s consider this: you recently began a new job and receive an email from a coworker named Sam. Sam didn’t include their pronouns in their email signature, so in your response you assume Sam uses he/him pronouns. Later you find out Sam uses she/her pronouns. Whoops.
To avoid a potentially embarrassing situation like above, we can consider using they/them pronouns until we know what personal pronouns someone uses. In some instances, we can also use their name instead of pronouns. Remember that pronouns are not identity.
Straight and cisgender people often don’t think about their own pronouns and tend to make assumptions about other people’s pronouns. When we meet someone new, we can refer to them in written and verbal communications by their name or, as mentioned, by a gender-neutral pronoun. We can avoid addressing them as “sir”, “ma’am”, “Miss”, or “Mr.”, among other gendered pronouns.
LGBTQ inclusive language
Gender-inclusive language is important for everyone, no matter who they are. People express their gender and sexuality in different ways, and using inclusive language can help them feel like they are acknowledged and respected. As part of our Pride Month celebration, we have created an LGBTQ Inclusive Language Cheat Sheet. We have included specific phrases and words to help everyone find the most inclusive way to address members of this community. Use this sheet to help us become the best ally and friend we can be for Pride Month and beyond.
Your LGBTQ Inclusive Language Cheat Sheet5