Inclusive language has a simple purpose: to ensure that a piece of communication–it may be written or spoken–does not discriminate against groups of people in the community. Discrimination can range from exclusion to derogatory comments and can be based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or other perceived differences.
Often disparaged as ‘political correctness’, inclusive language in fact seeks to redress imbalances in spoken and written communication; instead of assuming the readers of a text or the audience of a speech are a homogenous group, inclusive language embraces diversity.
For instance, where once many authors would have used the word ‘mankind’ to refer to humans as a group, now we would use ‘humanity’; the ‘man’ in ‘mankind’ can give an impression that women are not included as human, or are not as important as men. However, words such as ‘manhole’ are not always modified. ‘Personhole’ is neither elegant nor easily said: in this case, another word entirely would be more suitable. Drainhole perhaps? Sewerage hole? The word ‘chairman’ is often replaced with ‘chairperson’ or ‘chairwoman’. The simple ‘chair’ is also suitable in many contexts. However, chairman or chairwoman are appropriate if the person being referred to is an actual man or woman!
Sometimes, sentences need complete rewriting to remove gender bias. See this example, taken from the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) (6th ed):
‘When an individual conducts this kind of self-appraisal, he is a much stronger person’
‘This kind of self-appraisal makes an individual much stronger’ (p. 73–74)
Modifying your nouns and pronouns to plural forms can often remove this kind of bias. Replacing ‘his’ (or ‘her’) with an article (‘the’ or ‘a’) can also overcome this problem. Again, from the APA manual:
‘A researcher must apply for his grant by September 1’
‘A researcher must apply for the grant by September 1’ (p. 74)
It is normally better to use specific rather than generic words when discussing a group of people. For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples often prefer to identify themselves according to their own-language name. It is inappropriate to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as ‘natives’. The term ‘First Peoples’ is increasingly accepted among these communities. Generic terms are acceptable in certain contexts, such as government publications. ‘Indigenous’ is perfectly acceptable when referring to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as is ‘migrant’ and ‘immigrant’ for new comers to Australia. The word ‘Australian’ is used to cover all sections of the Australian community, including both people born in the country, and those who migrated here and became citizens.
When discussing people with disabilities, the preference is to minimise the disability or difference, as in the following examples:
person with a disability (instead of ‘disabled person’)
person with a mental illness (instead of ‘mentally ill person’)
person with visual impairment (instead of ‘blind person’)
These constructions help to retain focus on the person, rather than their disability.
Generally, using inclusive language is something that becomes easier once you get used to it. You can refer to style guides, university resources and government documents for more examples and suggestions. If you consider your text carefully, you will not only remove any inappropriate biases, you may also end up with a much more elegant piece of writing.
Updated: 27 May 2020
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is inclusive language?
A: Inclusive language is a way of writing and speaking that aims to ensure all groups of people in the community are treated equally and with respect. Inclusive language aims to redress imbalances and discrimination inherent in existing language, ranging from exclusion to derogatory comments. It avoids using words, expressions or assumptions that exclude or discriminate against people on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or other perceived differences.
Q: Why do I have to use inclusive language?
A: At the end of the day, inclusive language is about respect. When you choose to use inclusive language, you are choosing to respect other people’s dignity and diversity. Many groups of people have a history of being discriminated against and excluded, and language has helped effect this marginalisation. Bear in mind also that inclusive language is now a requirement in almost all academic and government writing. Why do you have to use inclusive language? Why would you choose not to?
Q: How can I use inclusive language?
A: Inclusive language aims to ensure that a piece of language does not discriminate against groups of people in the community. One common type of discriminatory language to look out for is gender bias. In the past, ‘he/his’ was commonly used to refer to any unspecified individual (though nannies, nurses and secretaries would probably have taken ‘she/her’). This is no longer acceptable. There are a couple of changes you can consider to remedy instances of gender bias in your own writing, including replacing a pronoun with an article, shifting to the plural form, or rewriting the sentence altogether. Particular words may be inherently biased—for example, ‘mankind’, which could be replaced with something like ‘humanity’ so as not to exclude or marginalise women. Gender bias is not the only form of discriminatory language—make the effort to find out how people of different ethnicities, religions, cultures, colours, sexualities and abilities prefer to refer to themselves. And, of course, consider what you are actually writing or saying—it is not just words and phrases that can be discriminatory, but underlying beliefs, judgements and arguments. Check your assumptions.