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Words that welcome: 11 guides to using inclusive language

Do your words welcome or do they cause harm? These resources will help you include all, regardless of gender, age, race, sexuality, or circumstance.

Inclusive language means intentionally using words and phrases that are conscious of all the many diversities of humanity. The goal is to take care not to offend or exclude anyone on accident.

Here are some guides to help you learn about writing inclusively. I know I’ve already learned a lot from these resources, and I hope you do too.

Take a look at these links and examples, and try your best to stay open to opportunities for growth and improvement. Remember that you are writing to create the safest, most welcoming experience possible for your readers.

Conscious Style Guide

The Conscious Style Guide is a website with a wide variety of guides and resources. With articles, guides, and lots of links to other organizations and tools, this site is a great place to research and find information.

“Bias-Free Language” guidelines (American Psychological Association)

These guidelines were created for writers using APA Style, but they are a great resource for anyone hoping to “talk about all people with inclusivity and respect.” The guidelines include information about a variety of areas, including age, disability, gender, racial and ethnic identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and intersectionality.

“Avoid using broad, pejorative, and generalizing terms to discuss socioeconomic status. Specifically, negative connotations are associated with terms such as ‘the homeless,’ ‘inner-city,’ ‘ghetto,’ ‘the projects,‘ ‘poverty stricken,’ and ‘welfare reliant.’ Instead, use specific, person-first language such as ‘mothers who receive TANF benefits‘ rather than ‘welfare mothers.’”

APA Style Guide: “Socioeconomic Status”

“Abolish racist language” guide (Intuit)

This guide gives general principles about avoiding racist language, plus a helpful list of questions to help you determine if a particular word or phrase is harmful. Finally, Intuit includes a list of specific words with racist roots, giving guidance and alternatives for each.

“Is the language working metaphorically? If so, what are the implications behind the metaphor? Does it place a positive connotation on whiteness and a negative one on something else (usually blackness)?”

from Intuit’s “Determining if a word is harmful” list of questions

Glossary of Ableist Phrases (Lydia X.Z. Brown)

Lydia X.Z. Brown compiled this list of words and terms that can be considered ableist. It lists slurs, ableist slang, descriptors for “disabled people or other people with pathologized identities/bodies/experiences,” and “common metaphors that rely on disability and ableism.” For many entries, Brown also gives excellent alternatives to consider instead.

Insane or Insanity. Refers to people with mental or psychiatric disabilities. Often used as a metaphor. Consider instead: wild, confusing, unpredictable, impulsive, reckless, fearless, lives on the edge, thrill-seeker, risk-taker, out of control

Lydia X.Z. Brown

GLAAD Media Reference Guide.

GLAAD created this guide for journalists (and anyone else) who want to “tell the stories of LGBTQ people fairly and accurately.” They share two glossaries of terms (LGBTQ and Transgender), plus guides focusing on specific topics such as family and parenting, hate crimes, and religion and faith.

Safety: Since it is ruled a crime to be LGBTQ in dozens of countries around the world, and some countries continue to have largely negative attitudes about LGBTQ people, it is important to consider safety when reporting on LGBTQ people. Confirm with sources that they are OK with having their full names and locations published when reporting.”

from “In Focus: Global LGBTQ Rights

Guidelines for Inclusive Language (Linguistic Society of America)

The Linguistic Society of America first published their Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage in 1996, and have since broadened the scope of their document. They give advice on how to write proactively to avoid “habits that may unintentionally lead to marginalization, offense, misrepresentation, or the perpetuation of stereotypes.”

“Whenever possible, when referencing individuals whose gender is not known, specified, relevant, or lies outside of traditional binaries, use appropriate alternative pronouns that do not specify or presuppose a particular gender (e.g. s/he, one, or the now-common and accepted singular gender-neutral they).

LSA Guidelines for Inclusive Language

“Avoid Sexist Language” guide (University of Arkansas Little Rock)

This brief guide from the University of Arkansas Little Rock gives some quick and easy tips to avoid “language that unnecessarily identifies gender.” In particular, it covers pronoun usage and sex-linked titles.

“Instead of sex-linked titles, try neutral titles: Fireman – fireperson is awkward, but firefighter is not. Policeman – policeperson sounds silly, but police officer sounds natural.”

UA Little Rock

Ageist language glossary (AARP)

The AARP offers this helpful article about avoiding language that excludes or harms someone based on their age. They give examples of phrases and classify them as “cool” or “not cool” based on how their usage could affect the aging community.

“Not Cool: “Adorable” — Puppies are adorable. We’re adults. The fact that we are interesting or funny does not render us infantile. Save this word for baby goats. You can also feed them ‘sweetie,’ ‘honey,’ and ‘dear.’”

Amanda Duarte and Mike Albo, AARP

Weight and Health Style Guide (SELF Magazine)

In recent years, SELF has reckoned with ways their content in the past has contributed to the “culture of weight stigma and unrealistic body expectations.” Recognizing that content can have effects on readers, they’ve shared their style guide publicly so others can learn too. They share guidance about both word usage and choosing/editing images.

“Avoid editing photos to change the size or shape of a person’s body, or to remove cellulite or stretch marks. It’s important to show people as they are, and not perpetuate the idea that a digitally altered body is either ideal or possible to achieve.”

Carolyn Kylstra, SELF.com

Writing About Mental Health (BuzzFeed)

BuzzFeed offers this guide on how to approach writing about mental health. Their helpful suggestions cover topics like avoiding euphemisms; taking care not to trivialize real, diagnosable disorders; and not conflating mental illness with violence or criminal activity.

“Use words that end stigma, not perpetuate it. … We have the power to change the conversation and reduce stigma by steering clear of derogatory language like nuts, lunatic, deranged, psycho, and crazy when referring to people.”

Drusilla Moorhouse, BuzzFeed

Covering People and Incarceration (The Marshall Project)

The Marshall Project started The Language Project to share stories of how the words we choose has a human impact on people “with intimate experience with incarceration.” As part of The Language Project, they also published a guide explaining their organizational standards of word choice and giving clear examples of what to avoid (and alternatives to use instead).

“We do not call people confined in correctional facilities ‘inmates‘ or ‘convicts.’ We use constructions that include ‘person’ or ‘people,’ a subject’s name and/or fixed biographical characteristics like age or state. Examples: ‘incarcerated people,’ ‘imprisoned people,’ ‘people in prison’…”

Akiba Solomon, The Marshall Project

Make sure all feel welcome

We all have room to grow! Taking the time to improve our awareness and learn about inclusive language will make a huge difference in the ways our websites and print publications welcome their readers. It’s never too late to learn.

Top photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash. Mural by Annabelle Wombacher, Jared Mar, Sierra Ratcliff and Benjamin Cahoon.

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