Inclusive Language

Learning Objectives

Identify the importance of using inclusive language.

To communicate with someone is to connect with them. We speak publicly because we want to forge points of connection between our ideas and worldview and those of our audience. In order to foster this connection, is it crucial to use language that allows all audience members to see themselves reflected fairly and meaningfully in the content of the speech.

Whenever we speak about a group of people, we need to consider the ethical implications of the categories or criteria we use to construct the group. Put another way, we have an ethical obligation to be mindful, attentive, and informed about the way we conceptualize and speak about categories of identity or affiliation. Speaking ethically involves striving to use inclusive language, which aims to make all listeners feel fairly represented in the language of the speech. At a minimum, inclusive language avoids the use of words that can be considered to exclude particular groups of people, for instance, gender-specific terms like “man” or “mankind.” Inclusive language also avoids statements that express or imply ideas that are sexist, racist, or otherwise biased, prejudiced, or denigrating to any particular group of people. Even if the speaker means well, certain terms, especially around attributes of identity, can be interpreted as offensive, hurtful, outdated, or inappropriate.

Using inclusive language means taking the time to consider not only the terms we use to represent individuals and groups, but also how we frame statements of “general” or “universal” identity. If a speaker says, “growing up in a Christian culture, we are used to thinking about morality in terms of sin and virtue,” they are using a we that might exclude an audience member who grew up in a different religious context. Or to give an example from the world of politics, in a speech on July 4, 2020, Donald Trump made reference to activists’ efforts to remove Confederate monuments: “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” [1] As many commentators pointed out, President Trump’s use of “our” here seems designed to include some listeners and exclude others.

Speakers should take care that they are not using language about identity in unequal ways: for instance, ” unsuccessful vice presidential candidates such as Kaine, Ryan, and Sarah Palin…” (unequal because it uses Palin’s first name but not Kaine’s or Ryan’s) or “Contemporary female artists like the photographer Cindy Sherman or the Venezuelan-American painter Luchita Hurtado” (why is Hurtado’s background specified but not Sherman’s?). If it is important to call attention to a person’s background or identity, make sure to do so equally across all the people discussed so that some identities aren’t being treated as an unspoken standard or default.

Inclusive Language and Race

Ethical speaking means paying attention to language, especially language around identity and personal characteristics. This is not to say, however, that a speaker should avoid discussing race, gender, religion, or disabilities—public conversations around these topics are more pressing and urgent than ever. In its “Race Reporting Guide,” the media advocacy organization Race Forward urges journalists and public communicators to approach key social issues “with a racial lens,” which means being “explicit about race” while taking care to “avoid stereotypes.” The Race Reporting Guide offers some very useful recommendations for addressing the language around racial identity, including the following principles:

  • Use racial and ethnic identification when it is pertinent to a story fairly (across all racial categories, including identifying persons as “white”) and appropriately (without relying on stereotypes).
  • Familiarize yourself with the key terms and concepts of race and ethnicity, and how categories that describe these can intersect (“White Argentine,” “a person of mixed Choctaw and African American descent,” Latinos who identify as “some other race”).
  • Specify, whenever possible, use a person’s tribe or ethnic group (Cherokee, O’odham, Mayan, Xhosa), and their region of origin (people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are South Asian; people from Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, and Guatemala are Central American).
  • Don’t use geographic descriptors interchangeably with religious or other terms to describe specific groups of people. For example, “Muslim” is not synonymous with Arab; African Americans are the largest Muslim population in the United States. [2]

Above all, the guide stresses the importance of paying attention to how people and groups self-identify, observing in particular the way multiple categories intersect and interact. It is important to remember that terms and categories related to race, ethnicity, gender, and other identities change and evolve with time, so the learning process is collective and ongoing.

Often, the context will determine which terms of identity are most appropriate. For example, the same person might be defined as Hispanic in a demographic survey, be grouped as Latino in a political poll, described as Latina by a friend, advocate for LatinX representation in the student senate, belong to the Chicano/a Student Association, and describe herself on her website as Mexican-American.

When discussing any categories of identity with which you are not very familiar, it can be wise to search out recent, relevant, reliable sources on the internet (for more about sources, see the section  on “Researching and Supporting Your Speech” in this course) and model your language on these sources.

Inclusive Language and Gender

In English, many words and phrases have historically contained inherent assumptions about sex and gender. When speaking inclusively, one should avoid using gendered terms. For instance:

instead of: use:
businessman businessperson, executive
cleaning woman cleaner
congressman congressperson
mailman letter carrier
Workman’s Compensation Workers’ Compensation
manmade artificial, synthetic
manpower workers, workforce, staff
mankind humankind, humanity
middleman intermediary, go-between

The exception, of course, is if you are specifically calling attention to one gender or another.

Inclusive Pronouns

Pronouns are also an important consideration in using inclusive language.

  • If a speaker fails to use inclusive pronouns, he risks excluding many members of his audience.

Think about that previous sentence. It’s grammatically correct, in that English has traditionally used the masculine pronoun as a generic, third-person singular pronoun. But in reading it, can you imagine this speaker as anything but a male? Instead, we could try:

  • If a speaker fails to use inclusive pronouns, he or she risks excluding many members of his or her audience.

This version is a bit more inclusive, but it leaves out those who don’t identify as male or female (and it sounds clunky). Grammatically, the best solution may be to use the plural here:

  • If speakers fail to use inclusive pronouns, they risk excluding many members of their audience.

With the trend toward more gender-inclusive language, you are probably more likely to hear the plural pronoun they used as a singular pronoun—especially in everyday spoken English. For example:

  • If a speaker fails to use inclusive pronouns, they risk excluding many members of their audience.

While the singular they offers the advantage of being gender-neutral—and it may soon become the accepted norm, as it was officially accepted by the APA in 2019—for now there are mixed opinions about it, and you may want to avoid it in your academic writing. When in doubt, consult your instructor’s preferred style guide.

In the case of individuals who use they as a singular pronoun to refer to themselves, it is grammatically correct to use they as a singular pronoun (per the Chicago Manual of Style, one of the predominant authorities on grammar and style). (The University of Chicago Press. “Grammar & Usage: Singular ‘they.'” Chicago Manual of Style, 2017, p. 241.)

People-First Language

Many advocates and activists, especially in the disabilities-rights community, have recommended using People-First Language to avoid defining someone according to a characteristic, state, or disability. For instance, one might refer to a “person with mental illness” rather than a “mentally-ill person” or “people experiencing homelessness” rather than “the homeless.” Other advocates, however, have rejected PFL as awkward or apologetic[3]. Like many linguistic interventions, PFL is part of an ongoing conversation about representation, rather than a prescription. When in doubt, it’s usually best to take your cue from the most recent and reputable sources you have available.

Language can be very tricky, and it can take work and practice to find inclusive formulations for many common words and phrases. It’s worth the effort, though, because it allows all your audience members to hear themselves represented in your speech.

To watch: Sinéad Burke

In this talk, educator and designer Sinéad Burke discusses the importance of inclusive design. Her comments about design are relevant to the way we should think about language as well: like design, language that starts from the principle of inclusivity will not only be fairer and more effective, but will also unlock new possibilities and connections.

You can view the transcript for “Designing for Everyone | Sinead Burke” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

In her speech, Burke invites her audience to imagine navigating two very different contexts—elementary school teaching and high fashion—from her perspective. This exercise not only illustrates her struggles in a world that wasn’t designed with her in mind, but also ends up demonstrating how inclusive design can create new ideas and approaches. These innovations not only benefit those who are often overlooked by the status quo, but also create better results for everyone else—in this case, students, fashion designers, and clothing consumers.


  1. “Remarks by President Trump at South Dakota's 2020 Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration.”
  2. Race Forward. Race Reporting Guide. 2015.
  3. “People-First Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2020,