Inclusive Writing

Chapter 6 of the Writing Style Guide

Writers should think carefully about language involving age, race, sex, disabilities and religion. Use objectivity, sensitivity and taste when referring to personal appearance, age, color, nationality, creed, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression or any other categories that could potentially insult people or groups.

nationalities and races — Capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, races, tribes, etc.: Arab, Arabic, African, African American, American, Asian American, Caucasian, Cherokee, Chinese (both singular and plural), French Canadian, Hispanic, Japanese (singular and plural), Jew, Jewish, Latin, Latina, Latino, Mexican, Mexican American, Native American, Nordic, Oriental, Sioux, Swede, etc.

Black(s), white(s) (used as nouns) — Do not use either term as a singular noun. For plurals, phrasing such as Black people, white people, Black teachers, white students is often preferable when clearly relevant. Black and white are acceptable as adjectives when relevant.

Black (adjective) — Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges. African American is also acceptable for those in the U.S., however the terms are not necessarily interchangeable.

sexism — Avoid masculine references “he” and “his” when the description assumes that both sexes are involved. If necessary, change construction from singular to plural to avoid sexist language.

— For example, write: “Students should contact their advisor for additional information,” rather than “A student should contact his advisor...”

Women should receive the same treatment as men in all aspects of writing. Physical descriptions, sexist references, demeaning stereotypes and condescending phrases should not be used. To cite some examples from the Associated Press, this means that:

  • Copy should not assume maleness when both sexes are involved, as in, “Jackson told newsmen” or in “the taxpayer … he” when it can easily be said “Jackson told reporters” or “taxpayers ... they.”
  • Copy should not express surprise that an attractive woman can be professionally accomplished, as in: “Mary Smith doesn’t look the part, but she’s an authority on ...”
  • Copy should not gratuitously mention family relationships when there is no relevance to the subject, as in: “Madeline Albright, a doughty grandmother, said today ...”
  • Use the same standards for men and women in deciding whether to include specific mention of personal appearance or marital and family situation.

In other words, treatment of the sexes should be even-handed and free of assumptions and stereotypes.

gender and sexualityGender is not synonymous with sex. Gender refers to a person’s social identity, while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people. When needed for clarity or in certain stories about scientific studies, alternatives include men and women, boys and girls, males and females.

sexual orientation — The term gay is used to describe men and women attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women. These terms are preferred over the term homosexual in all references. Transgender refers to people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Use the pronoun preferred by the transgender individual. LGBTQ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (or questioning).

they, them, theirIn most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The students used online textbooks for their classes.

They/them/there is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy or the individual’s preference is unknown. However, rewording is usually possible, and always is preferable since gender-neutral use of they is still unfamiliar to many readers. Do not use any other gender-neutral pronouns.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or who ask not to be referred to as he/him or she/her, use the person’s name in place of a pronoun or otherwise reword the sentence when possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that they phrasing does not imply more than one person.

When they is used in the singular, it takes a plural verb: Taylor said they need a new car. (Again, be sure it’s clear from the context that only one person is involved.)

Frequently used terms and definitions

asexual — Describes people who don’t experience sexual attraction, though they may feel other types of attraction, such as romantic or aesthetic. Not synonymous with and does not assume celibacy.

bisexual — Describes people attracted to more than one gender. Some people prefer pansexual, which describes people attracted to others regardless of their gender. The shortened version bi is acceptable in quotations.

cisgender — Describes people whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth; that is, not transgender. Explain if necessary. Do not use terms like normal to describe people who are not transgender. Not synonymous with heterosexual, which refers to sexual orientation.

cross-dresser — Use this term instead of the outdated transvestite for someone who wears clothing associated with a different gender, and only when the subject identifies as such. Not synonymous with drag performer or transgender.

gay, lesbian — Used to describe people attracted to the same sex, though lesbian is the more common term for women. Preferred over homosexual. Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to sexual preference or to a gay or alternative lifestyle. Gays is acceptable as a plural noun when necessary, but do not use the singular gay as a noun. Lesbian is acceptable as a noun in singular or plural form. Sexual orientation is not synonymous with gender.

gender-nonconforming (adj.) — Acceptable in broad references as a term for people who do not conform to gender expectations. The group is providing scholarships for gender-nonconforming students. When talking about individuals, be specific about how a person describes or expresses gender identity and behavior. For example: “Roberta identifies as both male and female.” Not synonymous with transgender. Use other terms like bigender (a term for people who identify as a combination of two genders) or agender (people who identify as having no gender) only if used by subjects to describe themselves, and only with explanation.

heterosexual (n. and adj.) — In males, a sexual orientation that describes attraction to females, and vice versa. Straight is acceptable. Transgender people can be heterosexual.

nonbinary — People are nonbinary if their gender identity is not strictly male or female. Not synonymous with transgender. Explain in a story if the context doesn't make it clear.

out, outing — Refers to public knowledge of a person’s homosexuality, bisexuality or gender transition. Brianna McSmith came out as lesbian; Gus Rubenstein came out of the closet; Sam Robinson came out as transgender. Outing or outed is usually used when a person’s status is revealed against one’s knowledge or will. Do not use terms like avowed or admitted. Use the term openly only if needed to draw a distinction.

same-sex marriage — The preferred term over gay marriage, because the laws generally don’t address sexual orientation. The term should be used only when germane to the article. In most cases, the term marriage is preferred.

transgender (adj.) — Describes people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were identified as having at birth. Does not require what are often known as sex reassignment or gender confirmation procedures. Identify people as transgender only if pertinent, and use the name by which they live publicly. Generally, avoid references to a transgender person being born a boy or girl, since it’s an unnecessary detail and excludes intersex babies. Use the name by which a transgender person now lives. Refer to a previous name, sometimes called a deadname, only if relevant to the story.