You might not even notice how often gender appears in day-to-day communication. Titles, pronouns, masculine words for general reference, greetings like “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls” are all gendered. These references serve as reminders of gender and gender inequality. And that’s not to mention that they discriminate against people who don’t identify themselves as male or female.
What Is Gender-Inclusive Language?
Using gender-inclusive language means using neutral references that don’t marginalize or discriminate against people based on gender. It should be used in any communicative situation — formal and informal, public and private, written and oral.
Why Does Gender-Inclusive Language Matter?
Gender is not only a grammatical category. It’s also a social construct that shapes our attitudes. It carries roles and attributes that are linked to being male or female. This binary grouping is alienating. The effects of gender-exclusive language are subtle yet far-reaching. They influence the way we think about the male or female categories, reinforcing stereotypes and bias. Thus, by avoiding gender references, we can promote gender equality and help to fight discrimination against particular gender identities.
8 Practices to Promote Gender Inclusivity
Although English is not the most gendered language, it still has some gender references that should be avoided whenever possible. Here are the best practices to make your speech and writing gender inclusive.
- Use “they” as a singular pronoun
Use “they,” “them,” “their,” and “themselves” as alternatives to masculine or feminine singular pronouns. It’s a standard recommended by most style manuals like APA, MLA, and Chicago. So don’t forget to observe it when you’re working on your academic papers.
Using gender-neutral language might be challenging at first. Therefore, if you have a high-stakes assignment to write, you might want to use a make my essay service. It’s the easiest way to get an original essay that is also free from discriminatory language.
Less inclusive: Contact an admission representative, he will provide you with program information.
More inclusive: Contact an admission representative, they will provide you with program information.
- Make nouns and pronouns plural
The use of masculine nouns and pronouns for general references fails to acknowledge the contribution women make in social and professional areas. An easy way to avoid them is to use plural forms.
Less inclusive: Every student should submit his essay on Friday.
More inclusive: All students should submit their essays on Friday.
- Omit pronouns
Paraphrasing a sentence to omit gendered pronouns is a way to make your speech or writing gender-neutral. However, you should use this alternative with caution to avoid being impersonal.
Less inclusive: A writer should edit a copy before he submits it.
More inclusive: A writer should edit a copy before submitting it.
- Use pairing
Pairing is the use of both masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns instead of a masculine form alone. Yet, be careful not to overuse it as pairing might be distracting for readers.
Less inclusive: A person might change his opinion
More inclusive: A person might change his or her (his/her) opinion.
- Substitute the generic masculine with the passive voice
Use the passive voice as a substitute for generic masculine references. Note that this technique won’t work in certain writing styles. It might make texts less personal and dynamic.
Less inclusive: Each employee should complete his task by the end of the month.
More inclusive: The task should be completed by each employee by the end of the month.
- Use gender-neutral job titles
Most job titles are neutral in English. However, there are a few gendered titles that don’t sound inclusive. It’s easy to replace them with neutral alternatives:
- policeman → police officer
- chairman → chairperson
- spokesman → spokesperson
- mailman → mail carrier
- businessman → businessperson
- congressman → congressional representative
- fireman → firefighter
There’s also no need to add gender to neutral job titles:
- female doctor → doctor
- male nurse → nurse
- actress → actor
- cleaning lady → cleaner
- steward → flight attendant
- Replace unnecessarily gendered terms
Not only job titles can be gendered. Some nouns emphasize gender without any particular need. These are mostly words that include “man.” Try to spot and replace them with neutral alternatives:
- man → person
- mankind → people, humanity
- common man → average person
- manpower → staffing, workforce
- freshman → first-year student
- man-made → artificial
- Ms, Mrs or Miss?
Personal titles like “Mrs.” and “Miss” can also be discriminatory. You can’t define women by their marital status or relationships with men. As a general rule, you should avoid addressing women as “Miss” or “Mrs.” and use neutral “Ms.” instead.
Besides, titles should apply to both men and women consistently. If you use full names, last names, or titles to refer to men, you should refer to women in the same way.
Less inclusive: Professor Brown and Jane will attend the meeting.
More inclusive: Professor Brown and Professor Miller will attend the meeting.
The Bottom Line
Word choice is a reflection of our worldview and attitudes. It shows what is considered a “norm” within society. By using gender-inclusive language, we can challenge stereotypical social structures associated with gender and gender roles. It can also help to raise awareness and promote gender equality everywhere — in the workplace, school, and everyday life.
The UHSRC requires gender inclusive language and consciousness in all study materials, including surveys. This requirement is consistent with the Belmont Report principles of Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice, which are the pillars of human subject protection regulation. This guidance explains the rationale behind this requirement, how to comply, and examples of acceptable questions.
Gender inclusivity, in this context, refers to considering all possible options regarding sex, gender, and sexual orientation when collecting research data.
Gender/Gender Identity describes how a person refers internally to the self, regardless of biology.
Gender Inclusivity will be used as a catch-all term to include representational equity with respect to sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Sex refers to the anatomy of chromosomes, hormones, and secondary sex characteristics.
Sexual Orientation refers to an individual’s emotional, physical, and sexual attraction to other people.
The EMU Human Subjects Review Committee supports a culture of inclusivity. Using gendered language and not being gender conscious goes against our mission of protecting human subjects in research.
The Belmont Report, issued in 1979 by an act of Congress, outlines three principles guiding the protection of human subjects: Respect for Persons, Beneficence, and Justice.
Respect for Persons
Respect for Persons dictates that “individuals should be treated as autonomous agents.” As such, the UHSRC acknowledges that individuals maintain the right to exert control over their own personal information. Commonly, Respect for Persons manifests in voluntary consent, however, the UHSRC extends Respect for Persons to include the understanding that investigators must be respectful of individual autonomy in all areas, including individuals own identities and how individuals self-identify.
Beneficence is generally regarded as respecting individuals’ decisions, doing no harm, and protecting individuals’ well-being. It is conceivable that a person would suffer emotional harm from feeling excluded or misgendered by a consent form or when completing a survey that does not include options corresponding to their identity.
Justice is often equated with fairness or the distribution of risk in research. Justice applies in different ways regarding gender inclusivity. By being gender inclusive, investigators can ensure that the risks and burdens of research, and similarly the benefits, are equitably distributed.
Sex, Gender/Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation are specific terms and should not be used interchangeably. In that regard, investigators must be specific in their language, in the questions they ask, and in the information they collect.
When conducting research, investigators who wish to collect information about sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation must consider the following:
Necessity of the question: Investigators must ask how the information will be used: if the information is used for tabulation purposes only or for ensuring diversity of a sample, or if the information is germane to data analysis. If the information is not needed for analysis purposes, there may be better ways to ensure sample diversity than asking personal or potentially invasive questions.
The UHSRC will require both precision and inclusivity in language in consent documents, survey questions, interview questions, and other application documents. Applications that are not gender inclusive will be returned for revision unless there is a documented and scientific/methodological reason why inclusivity impedes the research project.
Acceptable Questions and Response Options
When asking about sex, investigators should not use binary male/female language. An example of an acceptably worded question follows. Note that “Not Listed” is used instead of “Other” so as not to marginalize individuals who are not represented by the options listed.
_____Not Listed: ____________________________________________
_____ Prefer not to reply
Again, investigators should not use binary man/woman language. An example of an acceptably worded question follows.
How do you identify?
_____Not Listed: ____________________________________________
_____Prefer not to reply
Investigators should include all relevant categories for the research project. Some individuals interpret the word “homosexual” as pejorative, so its use is not advised. An example of an acceptably worded question follows.
_____Not Listed: ____________________________________________
_____Prefer not to reply
When appropriate, investigators should ask subjects which pronouns they use. An example question that can be used in a survey (or reworded into an interview question) follows:
_____Prefer not to reply
Elevating Communities, Inspiring Generations
EMU Research, 200 Boone Phone: 734.487.3090 [email protected]
The resources provided here are aimed at helping United Nations staff to communicate in a gender-inclusive way in the six official languages of the Organization.
Using gender-inclusive language means speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes. Given the key role of language in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias.
The Guidelines available on this website include a number of recommendations to help United Nations staff to use gender-inclusive language in any type of communication — oral or written, formal or informal, or addressed to an internal or external audience. The Toolbox contains training materials on the practical application of the Guidelines, information on related training courses and other relevant resources.
These resources have been developed by an inter-agency working group of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, the Department of Management, the Department of Global Communications (formerly DPI) and UN Women as part of a project entitled “Supporting gender equality in multilingual contexts”, aimed at supporting the goal, under the United Nations System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity, of creating “a working environment that embraces equality, eradicates bias and is inclusive for all staff” .
The recommendations and resources provided here will be revised and updated to reflect new feedback, suggestions and changes in the use of language. You are welcome to contact us and share your feedback with the inter-agency working group.
A group of young queer people Photo by Shutterstock
There is nothing worse than going out to dinner with a group of friends and the waiter comes over and addresses us all as “ladies.” Just last week I was out with a friend of mine who’s nonbinary and the waiter did just that. My friend let out a quiet sigh and I could see how depleted they felt by that use of language. I quickly addressed the waiter and asked them (politely) to use gender neutral language because we don’t all identify as ladies. They apologized, took our drink orders and went about the rest of their work shift. The rest of our meal was super lovely and the waiter used “y’all” when addressing out table.
However, there’s a way to nip this problem in the bud—so that no one ever has to feel uncomfortably misgendered again (. ). We can all make a commitment to use gender inclusive language. All. The. Time. And it’s really easy, I promise. What better time to start this intentional practice than Trans Awareness Week? From November 13 to 17 every year, the LGBTQ community works to help raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues the community faces. Misgendering is one of those issues.
Here are 6 easy ways we can all start to be more gender inclusive, TODAY! It’s okay if you sometimes slip up, this is a learning process for all of us. Just apologize and keep trying to use gender inclusive language whenever you can.
1. Instead of “Ladies and Gentlemen,” use “Distinguished Guests”
Even the New York City MTA is upping their trans-inclusive policy by getting rid of gendering subway riders with “ladies and gentlemen.” This is a perfect example of how gender non-conforming people deal with misgendering on a daily basis. The agony of this adds up and it can make it difficult to even find the motivation to leave the house when you know you’re going to continually be gendered in a binary way. So, if you are planning a fancy event—don’t address your guests as ladies and gentlemen. Opt in for the gender inclusive distinguished guests. It sounds fancier too!
2. Instead of “The lady in the yellow scarf…” use “The person wearing the yellow scarf…”
If you work in the service industry and need to address people when you don’t know their names and pronouns, it’s best to keep it neutral. So instead of telling your coworker that “The lady in the yellow scarf needs more water” you could say “The person in the yellow scarf needs more water.” Just like that, you’ve made sure that you didn’t misgender someone!
3. Instead of “Hey guys!” use “Hey folks!”
This one is tough for people to get used to. I know, I grew up in Western New York where “hey guys” was common language used for all genders. But if you’re speaking to a trans woman, that simple slip up in language could feel really horrible to her. It’s better to get in the habit of opting out of using guys to address groups of people and opt in for using folks. Everyone will be happier and so we all win, really!
4. Instead of “Men and Women” use “Everyone”
The gender binary is everywhere in our society. Literally, everywhere. It can get super frustrating when you don’t identify as either a woman or a man. It feels like there just isn’t any space that is welcome to you. Which sucks and no one should feel that way. So, instead of gendering everything every chance we get—let’s just not. We can start by using “everyone” instead of referring to large groups of people as “men and women.” Super simple!
5. Instead of “His or Hers” use “Theirs”
They, them, their pronouns are real. We use them all the time without even realizing it. But then when someone says that their pronouns are gender neutral, we just can’t seem to wrap our heads around it. You can practice daily by normalizing these pronouns. For example—if you see that someone dropped some money on the ground, instead of saying “Hey, she dropped her money on the ground” you could opt in for the gender neutral “Hey, they dropped their money on the ground.”
6. Instead of “Hey ladies” use “Hey y’all”
I can’t even tell you the amount of times the “hey ladies” happens when I’m out with a group of friends. This is a big assumption to make, that every single person identifies as a “lady.” Some butch women don’t even like to hear the word lady used in reference to them, but for trans men and GNC people—it’s especially problematic. It’s an easy fix though, you can start using “y’all” to refer to groups of people when you don’t know if they all like to be referred to as ladies.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but 6 simple ways we can all be more conscientious of saying goodbye to the gender binary.
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He’s also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together. Read more.
Microsoft Word can help ensure inclusive language in professional communications by checking your writing for gender bias, age bias, and more. This feature is turned off by default, so if you want to avoid using exclusionary language, here’s how to turn it on.
The inclusive language addition to the grammar checker is only available in the version of Word that comes with a Microsoft 365 subscription. If you’re using a stand-alone version of Office 2019 or an earlier version of Office, you won’t have access to this feature.
Start by opening a Microsoft Word document. From the “Home” tab, click Editor > Settings.
You can also access this menu by opening File > Options, choosing “Proofing,” and then clicking the “Settings” button.
Scroll down to the “Inclusiveness” section, select all of the checkboxes that you want Word to check for in your documents, and click the “OK” button.
Now, when you write anything in Word, the grammar checker will pick up on non-inclusive languages, such as “whitelist” and “blacklist,” and suggest alternatives.
The grammar checking appears to be intended for bias you haven’t thought about rather than the glaringly obvious. For example, some racial slurs are not flagged, presumably because they are known to be offensive. However, the checker does pick up the word “mankind,” with suggestions to change it to “humankind” and “humanity.”
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Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He’s also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
Read Full Bio »
Gender-inclusive language isn’t typically something you learn in school, but its use is incredibly important to make life easier for nonbinary peers.
There are ways to practice gender-inclusive language beyond just respecting gender-neutral pronouns. For instance, replacing “ladies and gentlemen” with “everybody” helps include people who do not identify as ladies or gentlemen.
“Using gendered terms — such as “ladies [and] gentlemen” — is highly presumptuous, especially in today's society, in which many persons are aware that they don't identify as male or female and therefore are uncomfortable with this type of language,” Dara Hoffman-Fox, LPC, explains.
To help our nonbinary friends feel more included and safe around us, here are four more ways to practice gender-inclusive language:
Refrain from defaulting to "-man" in descriptors, i.e. “postman.”
Remove gendered language — like using “postman” as the default word rather than “postal worker” — from everyday speech. By not using a word ending in “-man” as the default phrase for a descriptor, we can normalize the idea that anyone can perform a job, regardless of their gender identity.
“When we speak about ‘mankind’ or ‘the achievements of man,’ what we’re doing is confirming the subconscious bias that men are intellectually, morally, and physically superior to women, which is clearly untrue,” Sam Dowd, a British didactics expert from language-learning app Babbel, says. “By using such language, we exclude women — and, for that matter, nonbinary people — from history.”
We can avoid erasing women and nonbinary people from everyday conversations by using gender-neutral descriptions. Some examples include:
- Folks, folx, or everybody instead of guys or ladies/gentleman
- Humankind instead of mankind
- People instead of man/men
- Members of Congress instead of congressmen
- Councilperson instead of councilman/councilwoman
- First-year student instead of freshman
- Machine-made, synthetic, or artificial instead of man-made
- Parent or pibling instead of mother/father
- Child instead of son/daughter
- Kiddo instead of boy/girl
- Sibling instead of sister/brother
- Nibling instead of niece/nephew
- Partner, significant other, or spouse instead of girlfriend/boyfriend or wife/husband
- Flight attendant instead of steward/stewardess
- Salesperson or sales representative instead of salesman/saleswoman
- Server instead of waiter/waitress
- Firefighter instead of fireman
“Some people may argue that such concerns are unimportant, but if you consider that language is the primary filter through which we perceive the world, it’s obvious that it affects how we relate to and make judgments about one another,” Dowd tells Teen Vogue. “Until now, history has been written and told by men, to the detriment of others. Part of any attempt to create a society in which all people — regardless of gender, sexuality or race — have equal opportunities and freedoms is to use language that no longer excludes certain groups or creates unconscious bias.”
Just because a nonbinary person isn’t present doesn’t make it OK to use binary language.
Many nonbinary people aren’t as vocal about their identity and pronouns as others, and you can’t know someone’s gender by looking at them, Hoffman-Fox stresses. Nonbinary people reflect a wide variety of gender expressions and are sometimes still identified as male or female because they don’t present as androgynous.
“It's fairly common for people to assume that a nonbinary person isn't in the room,” Hoffman-Fox said. “The truth is, there is no way someone could know that, unless they have had conversations with every person in the vicinity and have asked them if they use binary terms to describe themselves.”
Hold those around you accountable.
Don’t be afraid to correct those around you, such as your classmates and even teachers, about using exclusive, gendered language, but do understand not everyone receives criticism in the same way.
“Some people will be comfortable with being very direct, like: ‘Excuse me, but when you used ladies to describe our friend group, it leaves out those who are uncomfortable with being gendered as female,’” Hoffman-Fox tells Teen Vogue. “Some may want to take a more subtle approach, such as repeatedly using a gender-neutral term within earshot of the person using binary language.”
Pay attention to which responses work better for certain people.
“Depending on the situation, you can address the situation with the person publicly or privately, in person or through a message,” Hoffman-Fox adds. “Try to keep it as simple as possible, explaining briefly what binary language is and how it can often result in people feeling invisible.”
Remember that binary language also harms cisgender and binary transgender people.
Nonbinary people aren’t the only ones hurt by binary language. Binary transgender people (or trans people who aren’t nonbinary) and cisgender people are also affected — and often harmed — by the gender binary and how ingrained it can be in our language. For instance, many women prefer not to be lumped into a group of “ladies” because of society’s expectations of how a lady should act.
“There are people who aren't nonbinary who are uncomfortable with binary gendered terms, thanks to these terms also being experienced as stereotypical,” Hoffman-Fox says. “Shifting to gender-neutral language is of benefit not only to those who are nonbinary but to many others in society who feel that binary terms are inaccurate ways of describing them.”
So much of our everyday language excludes different backgrounds, genders, and abilities. While this is oftentimes unconscious and unintentional, some commonly used words and phrases can read as male- or cisgendered-centric, while others can reinforce negative stereotypes about mental health, physical ability, or nontraditional family structures.
It’s time for our workplaces to embrace a new, more inclusive way to communicate to and about one another. Read on to learn how to promote inclusive communication at work.
What is inclusive language?
The language we use can (unintentionally) leave out entire groups of people. For example, career-related language is often male-gendered, with words like “congressman” or “policeman” commonly used to describe people employed in those professions. Even seemingly innocuous phrases like “mom and dad” can pose difficulties as they fail to acknowledge that many households do not have two opposite-sex parents. Inclusive language seeks to avoid words and phrases that exclude specific groups of people.
“Using gender-neutral and anti-ableist language isn’t about just being politically correct,” says Sayume Romero, a speech pathology student and LGBTQ activist. “It’s about allowing yourself to broaden your perspective. Language is powerful and … doesn’t only affect the listener, but also the user. By taking the extra energy to be more mindful of the language we use, we’re training new circuits in our brains and becoming more aware of how certain language can create a more supportive work environment.”
Pronouns and gender inclusion
When we speak, we tend to use pronouns like “she” and “he” as generic descriptors. However, there are people who may identify neither as male or female, so it’s important that our language takes them into account.
Instead of using traditional binary pronouns, you can use plural gender-neutral pronouns like “they,” “them,” “their,” “theirs,” and “themselves.” For instance, if you wanted to refer to someone’s work, regardless of the fact that they may look male or female, you could say, “They ran a thoughtful social media campaign for that nonprofit’s new program.” Since you’re already familiar with these pronouns, it’s not a stretch to start using them instead of gender binary ones.
There are alternative gender-neutral pronouns you can use that look and feel like a new language, but don’t be overwhelmed: you don’t have to use these identifiers unless you’re asked to.
One of the easiest things you can do to incorporate more inclusive language at work is to learn what pronouns your co-workers identify with. Depending on where you work and with a little bit of courage, you can make others—and yourself—feel more included and respected.
- You can ask, “Which pronouns do you prefer?” or “How would you like to be addressed?”
- If asking feels too forward or potentially offensive, you can take the lead. For instance, “I’m Nisha and I go by she/her.” This invites others to do the same.
If you make a mistake and identify someone incorrectly, don’t be too hard on yourself; apologize to your co-worker and reaffirm which pronouns they’re comfortable with. If you find yourself using gendered, ableist, or heteronormative language, be aware of your mistake and how you could have expressed yourself differently so that you can next time.
Be aware of heteronormative phrasing
Binary gender identity is just one example of heteronormativity, which also includes:
- The assumption of heterosexuality;
- The assumption of a “mom and dad” family structure; and
- Assumptions and references to “traditional” gender roles at home (e.g. “Mom does the dishes while dad brings home the bacon.”)
Since the basis of heteronormativity is assumption, the best way to avoid it is to ask inclusive questions when you’re unsure of someone’s sexuality or preferred gender pronoun. For example, don’t ask, “How’s your wife?” Instead ask, “How’s your partner?”
Just as language is gendered, it can also be ableist. Ableism is simply the discrimination against anyone with a physical or mental disability. And our everyday, casual speak can unfortunately be ableist, reinforcing insensitivity and negative stereotypes.
Words like “blind”, “deaf,” “dumb,” “idiot,” “insane,” “lame,” “nuts,” and “psycho” are all ableist.
Instead of using words like these, take this opportunity to practice clearer communication. Instead of saying, “My manager is nuts if she thinks we’re going to meet that deadline,” you can say: “This deadline is unrealistic.”
Saying what you mean can prevent the use of offensive shortcuts. For some inspiration, check out the work of some great disability activists.
Promoting inclusion at work
“Ideally using unbiased language will become the norm and standardized, but until then it will take the efforts of organizations and individuals to shift the current language,” Romero tells us. But the real key to inclusivity, she says, is being mindful.
“It can seem overwhelming to be mindful of all the possible linguistic pitfalls you may encounter,” she notes. “So my first recommendation is to accept that you are human, just like the rest of us. Be open to listening to others and learning from their perspective. If you make a mistake then take the time to understand what it was and learn from it. With time, it will become easier and you too will be able to help others broaden their linguistic perspectives and sensitivities.”
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(Graphic: JESSICA LEE/The Stanford Daily)
Inclusive language starts with good intentions. Avoiding offensive statements and gestures is a basic common courtesy. A heightened awareness of where certain words come from and what they might imply helps us keep racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory terms out of our vocabulary. But the more closely we examine everyday language, the fuzzier the line between offensive and innocuous becomes. In a climate of intense debate about social issues, disagreements about words can quickly devolve into angry attacks that undermine inclusion instead of achieving it.
First, terminology that some consider inclusive may not actually reflect the preferences of the people it describes. Take the neologism Latinx, whose proponents argue that adding a final “x” renders the words inclusive of all genders. Meanwhile, critics see it as pointless and even elitist. “There’s already a word [for Latinx], and it’s Latinos,” Enrique Salas, a South Carolina resident, told NBC News. Enrique Samuel Cervantes, writing for the DePaulia Online, added that Latinx “trata de manchar nuestros orígenes y nuestras raíces culturales…está deletreada mal y se escucha mal” (“[the word] is an attempted stain on our origins and cultural roots…it’s badly spelled and it sounds bad”). Research suggests that Cervantes is hardly in the minority: a widely cited Pew Research survey found that only 3% of Hispanic adults in the US describe themselves as “Latinx.” A mere 4% support using it as a pan-ethnic term, and 76% hadn’t even heard of it. “Latinx” is meant to be inclusive, but statistically, it’s anything but.
Similar problems emerge with gender-inclusive terminology. US Congresswoman Cori Bush sparked controversy last spring after describing mothers as “birthing people” in a speech to Congress. The phrasing clearly hit a nerve. Proponents argue that “birthing people” is simply more inclusive, recognizing that transgender men or nonbinary people give birth. Critics find the term derogatory and insulting, noting that it, along with phrases like “chestfeeding,” “human milk,” “front holes” and “vulva owners,” reduces women to a conglomerate of abstract, dehumanized body parts. Clearly, there’s no magic word or phrase that will make everyone feel included, and insisting that certain terms are objectively more inclusive than others only adds fuel to the fire.
And when it comes to issues like the “birthing people” controversy, where there’s no obvious “inclusive” option, it makes even less sense to punish people harshly for transgressions. In extreme situations, those who utter supposedly exclusive words are themselves excluded. Such was the case with Lindy Treece, a graduate student at Portland State University who, during a Zoom class discussion about the 2020 presidential election on election day, said, “I’m going to accept the results of the election no matter what because I’m not a snowflake.” Immediately after she had spoken, Treece’s audio and video were muted. She later received an email from the professor, who would only let her return to the class if she “agree[d] to not use derogatory language” (including, apparently, about herself). Treece pointed out that she is autistic, making it challenging for her to predict how others will react to her comments. In her own words, “the think-before-you-speak advice is essentially a logical fallacy for us autistic people … we are unaware of how others will be impacted until it happens.” As a fellow autistic, I can confirm this; difficulty seeing things from other people’s perspectives is a core part of the condition.
Thanks to a letter from an attorney, Treece was allowed to return to class without agreeing to the professor’s conditions. Her case wasn’t an anomaly. Yale Law School administrators have spent the better part of the last month pressuring a student to apologize for inviting fellow members of the Native American Law Student Association out to a “trap house” party, which other students believe conveyed an “inherently anti-Black sentiment.” Thankfully, these cases don’t crop up every day — at least not on one campus, but subtler instances of exclusive-inclusivity are less severe manifestations of the same underlying problem. A freshman from a rural area uses words like “gay” or “retarded” out of habit, rather than malice, and is shunned, rather than approached respectfully. A male student isn’t aware that the word “hysterical” has been used to degrade women and promptly has his head bitten off. To clarify, I’m not defending this language; I’m simply arguing that we should respond to it differently. These indignant reactions shut down conversations rather than starting them, and insulting people is hardly an effective strategy to change their minds.
All of these instances exemplify how easily linguistic conventions meant to create inclusive environments can end up alienating vulnerable individuals instead. Non-native English speakers are also at a disadvantage, as mastering a new language is challenging enough without trying to keep up with an ever-growing list of unacceptable terms. And to non-college-educated Americans who aren’t keeping up with the latest on gender and sexuality studies, acronyms like LGBTQIAAP+ and buzzwords, such as “positionality” and “minoritize,” are likely incomprehensible.
If we really want to change the way people speak, we should choose the small selection of epithets that truly degrade others and tread carefully when generalizing about the preferences of entire populations. Most of all, let’s not allow the thoughtfulness behind our words to be overshadowed by aggressive enforcement. Amidst a sea of politically loaded, ever-changing terminology where the consequences of misspeaking can be severe, we risk losing all the good intentions behind inclusive language.
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