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Inclusive Community-Creating Best Practices

Best Practices for Inclusive Language

We are called to be aware of our own social locations and what they enable us to see—but also what we are likely to miss. Language usage outside of the academy may vary, as may usage according to whether the arena is public or private, formal or informal. The examples below assume the use of English.

Try to keep a person’s full identity as a human being in the forefront, rather than reducing an individual to one characteristic or part of that person’s identity.

Avoid redundant or irrelevant use of gendered, or racial or other referents. For example, speak of persons with disabilities rather than disabled persons or the disabled. Speak of undocumented persons rather than illegal persons. Avoid labeling a person with an illness or a mental illness. A person is not an illness. Speak to the person first, and then the illness. For example, speak of persons with mentally ill experiences or challenges or diagnosis; not a bipolar person, but persons living with bipolar disorder; not drug/alcohol abusers but persons with substance use challenges; not a diabetic but persons with diabetes

Draw attention to a person’s gender, race, occupation, age, sexual orientation or other identifying characteristic only if it is relevant to the situation at hand.

Typically discussion of an individual’s physical characteristics tends to reinforce stereotypes or turn groups into sexualized beings rather than fully human persons. For example, avoid emphasizing women’s physical features or reproductive capacities outside of relevant contexts. Do not assume that women function primarily as caregivers (or that men do not). In all cases, ask: Are the characteristics described truly relevant to the situation under discussion?

Use the terms that those you are discussing will use to describe themselves to others, recognizing that such terms may change over time.

For example, use Inuit rather than Eskimo. However, be aware of euphemistic language that individuals and groups use to hide realities. For instance, use genocide rather than ethnic cleansing.

Use symmetry when discussing pairs of groups.

For example, when referring to adult humans, use women and men rather than girls and men (This example is given to show how women are often described in language that confers childlike, rather than adult characteristics. However, this example also assumes binary gender characteristics and therefore human is preferred to women and men). Use Ms. Janet Chao and Mr. Thomas Jones, or Chao and Jones, not Janet and Jones.

Avoid assuming that men are the norm or standard, and others are exceptions.

Typically, use humankind rather than mankind, human rather than man, and artificial or unnatural rather than manmade. Use chairperson rather than chairman, First-year student rather than freshman. Take note of when and how statistics and standards were created. For example, height and weight charts used to measure obesity are often based on an average of men taken in the 1950s. Is it then fair to measure women as obese or overweight using these measures?

Avoid assuming that white people are the norm or standard, and others are exceptions.

For example, be aware of terms like real Americans or the use of we, us and our when only white people are meant.

Use gender-neutral pronouns

Gender-neutral pronouns (s/he, her/him, zie, hir) are preferred to he when talking about a group of people that includes men, women and non-gender-identifying persons. Often using a plural rather than a singular sentence construction will enable a smoother read. Use plural gender-neutral pronouns (they, them, their) instead of singular forms to avoid awkward constructions.

Does the language used retain agency for the persons you are talking about?

Survivors is preferred to victims. Use “uses a wheelchair” rather than “is confined to a wheelchair” and only if wheelchair use is relevant to the topic.

Use titles, or not, based on the culture of the society in which a person is living or visiting.

Formal titles may be proper in a society or setting that is more structured, and titles may be viewed as unnecessary in a society that is less formal.

“Communicate across cultures: Recognize what you consider ‘normal.’ Examine your own customary behaviors and assumptions, and think about how they may affect what you think and say (and write). Listen closely to someone from another culture, and ask for clarification if necessary. Carefully define your terms. Think about your audience’s expectations. How much authority should you have? What kind of evidence will count most with your audience? Organize your writing with your audience’s expectations in mind. If in doubt, use formal style” (Lunsford, TEW, 2017, p. 276).*

“Consider other kinds of difference: Age, Class, Geographical area, Physical ability or health, Religion, and Sexual orientation” (see Lunsford, TEW, 2017, pp 284-285 for explanations).*
Refer to the “Language” section of The Everyday Writer (EMU’s writing handbook) for additional discussion.

Use materials from groups who experience marginalization…

…in teaching, classroom discussions, research design and worship.

Due to the rapidly changing nature of best practices, please contact the Provost’s Office with suggestions for revisions to this document.

  • Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Everyday Writer, 6th edition, Andrea A. Lunsford (NYC: Bedford St. Martin’s). Copyright 2017.
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