As a professional writer, academic researcher, or aspiring author, you know that language conveys value and can also shape thinking.
While language is always evolving, many of our commonly used words and expressions have formed alongside a larger history in the English-speaking world of patriarchy, colonialism, and racism. Being cognizant of that can help at least decenter those realities for a more inclusive and precise writing.
Whether you are writing social media copy, a personal statement, or language on a syllabus, keep these tips at the forefront for crafting inclusive text.
If you’re writing about people, community, or culture, putting people at the center of descriptions conveys value. You can demonstrate a value for humanity over systems, circumstances, or characteristics with the words you choose.
Person-first language originated as a concept in the 1980s by advocates in the disability arena and the early AIDS crisis. Person with AIDS was a term that centered the person rather than the condition and eliminated notions of passivity, helplessness or victimhood that previous frequently used terms had.
While some individuals prefer “community-first” terms (for example autistic person is preferable to some people over person with autism), and it is always best to ask how each individual would like to be referenced, if you are writing about a group in general, your safest option is person first. This includes describing people who experience homelessness, people with drug misuse disorders, and many others.
Choose Tranquility (Not Violence)
If you have ever taught or studied writing, the notion of choosing active verbs over passive ones has sent us all to the thesaurus a time or two. But many words and phrases in English have violent or military origins that can unwittingly inject our writing with subtle hostility.
This is perhaps especially important for those who are writing with social justice in mind, but it is worth considering for anyone aiming to write with an eye toward inclusivity. Common phrases that originate in warfare include: “Marshall support” for a cause, “drill down” on a topic, or be “on the frontlines” of an issue, not to mention the many casual phrases that reference guns like “give it a shot,” “straight shooter,” or “shooting in the dark.”
Simply being aware of this and thinking twice as you choose your words can help you keep your language focused on accurate description.
Move Away From Binaries
While once the more inclusive way to address pronouns when talking about people or groups generally was to use “she or he” or the invention of “s/he” usage, those practices upheld the limiting norms of gender binaries. Instead, use “they/their/them” singular when the gender of the person is unspecified or not known.
Singular “they/them” has already become common practice with many writers using it as the pronoun of choice instead of a singular pronoun, and even the major style guides have officially affirmed it as the preferable singular pronoun. However, if you feel it may throw off the particular audience for whom you are writing, you can avoid needing a singular pronoun by speaking in plurals.
For instance instead of writing “each artist has their own preferred medium” (which uses the singular they), you could choose to use a plural noun, such as “artists have their own preferred medium” (which has the conventional plural noun corresponding to the they/their/them pronoun).
Avoid Idioms (or sacred terms)
We all have different levels of awareness about the racist or misogynist etymology of certain words and phrases in everyday English. You may already know to stay away from terms originating in Native American / American Indian sacred culture that are offensive when used as stand-ins such as totem pole (often prefaced with “on the bottom of”) as a stand in for discussions of one’s role in a structure, or powwow as a synonym for a meeting. (If you’re not yet familiar, it’s time to refrain from using these moving forward.)
But many terms and phrases that might have less well-known critiques making their way into the zeitgeist have similarly disturbing or questionable origins. Phrases like nitty gritty or tipping point are among phrases that have come under scrutiny for demonstrable or potential origins in the history of slavery.
One way to avoid inadvertently using a word or phrase with such origins is to avoid idioms altogether, or any word that originates from a religious or sacred practice (guru is another one to avoid). Be specific and accurate in descriptions rather than utilizing phrases that you might think paint a picture but actually originate in or perpetuate historical harms.
Specificity and Self-Determination
When it comes to race, ethnicity and nationality, being accurate and specific, and using terminology chosen by an individual, when known, is best. Being fully cognizant of terms and their usage is vital when writing.
There is rarely a single “right” term, so keeping abreast of terminology enough to know what terms no longer are accurate and/or stigmatizing is important. For instance, the term minority is not only diminishing but factually inaccurate when describing People of Color (POC) or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), or People of the Global Majority, all terms which different people favor for different reasons, but are more accurate and current.
Terms change and evolve regularly, so staying curious and keeping track as norms evolve can be helpful. The Conscious Style Guide is a handy source to have at your fingertips and taking note of new usages in the Associated Press’s biennial release of style guide updates is a good practice for staying current.
While we can’t dismantle social injustices simply with the words we choose, we can at least use words that don’t reaffirm oppressive structures and paradigms. Crafting language that is precise and descriptive is often thought to be the most compelling anyway, and keeping a few practices in mind as you write can help you create prose that also conveys your values.
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About the author
A nineteenth-century cultural historian with a focus on issues of race and gender, Carolee earned her PhD in American studies at Yale. She has taught history at Yale, Ramapo College, and the University of Texas at Dallas. A longtime freelance writer and editor, she currently works at a racial equity nonprofit in Dallas.