WCS7: Avoiding Exclusive and Offensive Language

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

  1. Recognize language that is considered sexist or exclusive.
  2. Avoid exclusive language in your writing.
  3. Recognize and avoid language that is offensive to any specific group of people.

Only recently has written English started to reflect the fact that women and other under-represented groups–including transgender people or those who do not fall under the gender binary of identifying as a him or her–have the same rights afforded to majority groups. Language is evolving to match changes in equity. 

It is now unacceptable to refer generically to a doctor as “him,” a teacher as “her,” or a politician as “him,” and to make the false assumption that all people identify as either a him or a her. Such usage is considered exclusive. (For a discussion of correct gender pronouns, see table G3.2)

In addition to being mindful of a person’s gender pronouns, there are more ways to avoid using exclusive language. You can use more inclusive language through the following methods:

Using Plural Format

By using plural nouns instead of singular nouns, you can switch from sex-specific singular pronouns to gender-neutral pronouns.

Examples

Example of sexist and exclusive language using singular pronoun: A family member who misses a holiday dinner will find he has missed more than the food.

Example of nonsexist and inclusive language using plural pronoun: Family members who miss holiday dinners will find they have missed more than the food.

Revising to Eliminate Pronouns

Since English includes many singular, gender-specific pronouns, another way to eliminate sexist language is to eliminate the use of pronouns.

Examples

Example of exclusive language using singular pronoun: A family member who misses a holiday dinner will find he has missed more than the food.

Example of inclusive language due to elimination of pronoun: A family member who misses a holiday dinner misses more than the food.

Using Direct Address

Sometimes you can simply switch from third-person singular to second-person singular or plural and in the process make your tone more engaging.

Examples

Example of exclusive language using third-person pronoun: A student who forgets to bring his book to class will be assessed a ten-point penalty for his daily work.

Example of nonsexist language using second-person pronoun: If you forget to bring your book to class, you will be assessed a ten-point penalty for your daily work.

Choosing Nonsexist Terms

One of the best methods of solving the sexist or exclusive language problem is to choose nonsexist terms. With a little practice, you can learn to naturally use the currently preferred inclusive language rather than terms that are no longer acceptable. Study the following table for some examples.

Formerly Acceptable Currently Acceptable
Businessman, Businesswoman Businessperson, Business Executive
Chairman, Chairwoman Chairperson, Chair, Head, Leader
Congressman, Congresswoman Congressperson, Legislator, Member of Congress
Fireman Firefighter
Mailman Mail Carrier, Mail Delivery Person, Letter Carrier, Postal Worker
Man, Mankind Humankind, Humans, People, Homo Sapiens, Humanity, The Human Race
Policeman, Policewoman Police Officer, Officer of the Law, Trooper
Salesman Sale Associate, Salesperson, Seller, Vendor

Avoiding Other Offensive Language

Whether language is identified as offensive depends entirely on the audience. If the audience or part of the audience views the wording as offensive, then the wording is offensive. To avoid inadvertent offensive text, adhere to the following general guidelines.

  • Use currently accepted terminology when referencing groups of people. If you are writing about a group of people and you are unsure of the proper terminology, research the most recent usage patterns before you write.
  • Be sensitive when referencing people with disabilities by using a “people first” approach. For example, say “a person who uses a wheelchair” instead of “a wheelchair-bound person.”
  • Do not use profanity or vulgar words of any kind. When in doubt, don’t use the term, or if you must use it as part of a quotation, make clear that you’re quoting it.
  • Avoid stereotyping (ascribing positive or negative attributes to people based on groups to which they belong). 
  • With reference to people, they as a singular pronoun is a pronoun option for those whose gender identification is nonbinary, meaning they identify as neither a he nor a she. The Associated Press updated their style guide in 2017 to reflect this grammatical evolution. (See G4 on “Making Pronouns and Antecedents Match” to learn more).

Adapted from Chapter 16 “Sentence Style” in Writer’s Handbook v 1.0 used according to Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

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