Inclusive Writing Tips

2022-04-15 | 3 min | 519 words
in writing
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When you're doing formal writing, for a blog, book, article, document, etc. you will often have to refer to a figurative non-existent person or the reader, or to an arbitrary member of a group, or some other case where you don't actually know the identity of the person you're writing about.

In these cases, it is imperative to write in an inclusive style. This is of course difficult in our world of gendered languages. Thankfully English isn't as strongly gendered as many other languages, so there are some things we can do to avoid exclusive writing.

I do have once piece of advice, a variant on an old adage:

In truly inclusive writing no one should not notice you've done anything differently at all.

Avoid Gendered Pronouns

The most obvious first step to inclusive writing is to avoid pronouns that are inherently gendered, like "he" and "she". There is of course a very easy solution:

Just use "they"

The words "they" and "them" are the gender and group agnostic and inclusive of everyone! Anyone who insists that "they" is only for a group is both a pedant and factually wrong. Singular "they" has been in use for centuries, even Shakespeare did it.

If you use phrases like "he/she" you are immediately calling attention to the fact that you're making a halfhearted effort to be inclusive, but aren't going all the way.

Avoid Gendered Words and Obviously-not-Gendered Words

It's immediately apparent that words like "mailman" which explicitly refer to gender are not inclusive. But the naïve approach of simply replacing it with "mailperson" is no better; It doesn't read right, is not in common usage, and according to some dictionaries isn't even a real word. Words like this simply sidestep the problem and don't solve it.

Instead, try to find words that are more descriptive or completely avoid any reference to a gendered phrase. Example alternatives to "mailman" include "postal worker", or "mail carrier".

Dealing with Borrowed Words

While English is not a strongly-gendered language, we often borrow words from other languages (such as Spanish and French) that are strongly gendered. The solution is NOT to come up with strange anglicized versions like "Latinx" that don't make any sense in their original language.

Instead, you generally have two options:

Firstly you could look to the host language and do what they do. For many languages, this is the masculine-gendered version, such as "Latino". Understand that this is not exclusive, in these languages the masculine version is the gender-neutral version. Yes, this says a lot about human history, but you have an article to write so the debate about historical gender politics can wait (unless that IS your article).

Secondly, you can defer to what is most common in English. For certain words this offers the path of least resistance. A common example would be the words "fiancé" and "fiancée", masculine and feminine respectively, but the latter is generally the more common usage and will surprise the reader less often.