Inclusive Language

Good communicators include everyone and don’t make assumptions about their readers. You can make your language more inclusive by:

  • Using the singular “they” instead of “he or she.” For example, instead of saying, “A communicator should understand his or her audience,” you could say, “A communicator should understand their audience” or “Communicators should understand their audience.”
  • Being specific when discussing a person’s identity and use the terminology they prefer. For example, instead of saying “Marilyn Gabriel is a First Nations person,” you could say “Marilyn Gabriel is a member of the Kwantlen Nation.” Usually, a person’s disability isn’t relevant, but if it is, use neutral and specific language. For example, instead of saying “Brent is confined to a wheelchair” (which is both inaccurate, negative and vague), you could say “Brent uses a wheelchair” or “Brent has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.” When in doubt, ask the person what terminology they prefer.
  • Question the assumptions that you make about your audience. Consider that many of your readers might not share the same cultural values or experiences. For example, before writing a sentence like “Every child waits all year for Christmas morning,” consider that many of your readers might not have shared this experience.
  • Avoid expressions or idioms that would be confusing to English language learners. Workplaces are increasingly global, and your writing should be understood by people from many different backgrounds.

Words and phrases also often have complex histories. For example, often we don’t think twice about calling a decision “stupid” or “dumb,” but these words have a long history rooted in harm against people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. One way that we can address ableism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, fatphobia and other forms of discrimination is to replace these words with words that are more precise. For example, saying “our manager’s decision is stupid” is vague, whereas “our manager’s decision will make life harder for the interns” or “our manager’s decision ignores the data that Cody presented at the meeting last week” is much more specific.

You should be especially careful when writing about groups of people in a way that might reinforce stereotypes. For example, in his book Elements of Indigenous Style, Gregory Younging discusses how subtle bias can have a big impact when non-Indigenous people write about First Nations, Metis and Inuit people. For example, instead of portraying Indigenous people as victims, focus on their “resilience, agency and future.” (2018, pg. 77). Instead of portraying an Indigenous culture as something static that existed in the past, focus on how that culture is thriving and changing.


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Business Writing For Everyone Copyright © 2021 by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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