What’s in a word? A lot more than you might think. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the words we choose can carry connotations of certain worldviews or belief systems. This is the nature of language, but when we overlook these deeper meanings, we run the risk of using words that can hurt and exclude people.

In order to avoid this, we should strive to use inclusive language. This doesn’t mean  tiptoeing around sensitive topics—it means actively listening and visibly engaging with ongoing conversations about diversity and inclusion.

Implementing an inclusive language initiative

At VeraContent, we believe in promoting messages of inclusion while showing a genuine interest in and respect for the individuals and communities within our audience. To that end, our team has developed the VeraContent Tone & Style Guide for Inclusive Language.

This document guides our linguistic choices in both our work for clients and our internal communication. To develop it, our team members reviewed a variety of existing guides and read up on the movements and voices that are shaping a more inclusive society.

We wrote this article to share some of the insights and knowledge we gained throughout this experience. We hope it will inspire you to make your own writing as inclusive as possible!

For more tips on creating an inclusive content strategy, check out our inclusive content starter’s guide.

inclusive language

Guiding principles for inclusive language

Before jumping into the words and phrases that allow us to write in a more inclusive way, it’s important to establish the main ideas behind our choices. These principles remind us why we’ve committed to inclusive language and how we plan to continue learning.

At VeraContent, we’ve identified five guiding principles for our inclusive language guide. They’ve helped us decide what to include and prioritize, and provided a framework for developing guides in languages other than English.

1. Language is always evolving

Throughout 2020, we saw countless examples of how social movements and global events can influence language. We were repeatedly challenged to consider what our words might mean to people with experiences different from our own. 

For all that we’ve learned thus far, we have to remember that what’s true today may not be true tomorrow. By committing to inclusive language, we’re committing to a lifelong learning process that involves asking questions, listening, reflecting and reevaluating our actions.

As language evolves, we must evolve with it.

Note: Since language is constantly changing, the guidelines described below may become outdated at some point. It’s always a good idea to review your own practices every so often and adjust them as necessary.

2. Our audience is diverse

In order to be an effective writer, you have to think about who you’re writing for. But when you imagine your target audience, who gets left out?

We have to ask this question in order to move toward more inclusive writing. When we imagine the vast number of people—representing diverse identities, communities and experiences—who might engage with our writing, we’re encouraged to consider new perspectives and take a more empathetic approach.

You never know who will read your words, so challenge yourself to write for everyone.

See also: Knowing your audience is the key to great marketing

What is inclusive language? Key examples from VeraContent’s tone & style guide

3. Respect comes first

Inclusive language goes much further than “using the right words.” It helps us to develop an inclusive mindset, and work toward building spaces where everyone can feel understood and respected.

To achieve this, we can’t just focus on following a set of rules; we also have to demonstrate genuine respect for individuals and communities. When we place respect at the core of our decisions, we prioritize the effects of our words on other people.

To start with, this means speaking to or about individuals and communities in the way they wish to be addressed or represented.

4. We uplift diverse voices

Inclusive writing requires a conscious effort to incorporate diverse perspectives. This may apply to the sources we use for an article, the subjects we interview, the examples we highlight, the quotes we include, the images we add or any other aspect of our work.

Not only does this expose us (and our audience) to a variety of viewpoints, but it also encourages us to write richer texts that more accurately represent the complexities of our world.

Everything we write should take into account a variety of voices other than our own.

5. A critical eye is crucial

As we start to incorporate inclusive language into our writing, it’s important to remember that our work is never done. We have to train ourselves to think critically about our assumptions and implicit biases, and learn to identify problematic messages or wording.

This critical eye will help us navigate the complexities of inclusive language as the world around us continues to change. 

Ultimately, thinking critically about our own work will enrich our writing—and help us promote inclusion in a variety of contexts.

inclusive language

What does inclusive language look like?

The VeraContent Tone & Style Guide for Inclusive Language is based on the principles above and reflects our ongoing research into the various aspects of diversity and inclusion. We’ve organized it into six areas, following the example of similar guides that we’ve consulted.

The guide is always growing and improving, but below we’ll share a few of the guidelines it currently contains to give you an idea of what inclusive language looks like.

We’re aware that not everyone will agree with our specific choices; the “right” way to address and describe certain people and groups is an ongoing debate. You should always take into account your own audience, context and values when making these kinds of decisions. 

In other words, you don’t necessarily have to follow our guidelines (although of course you’re welcome to). We want you to use them as inspiration to develop your own!

With regard to all the categories below, we always try to avoid mentioning someone’s age, marital status, physical appearance, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nationality or religion unless it’s necessary and relevant to the context.

Abilities & Disabilities

  • Put personhood first. This means prioritizing the individual over their condition, ability or disability. With that said, we should also be mindful of each individual’s preferred terminology; when in doubt, ask how the subject prefers to represent their condition, ability or disability.  
Use thisInstead of this
A person with loss of vision/a visual impairmentA blind person
A person with a drug addiction/recovering from alcoholismA drug addict/alcoholic
A person with schizophreniaA schizophrenic

Here’s a great article that’s helped us to identify and remove ableist ideas from our texts.

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  • Write in a way that highlights the subject’s individuality. This means staying away from general terms that apply homogenous attributes to age groups or generations, or that imply one age group is more or less capable than another.
Use thisInstead of this
An effective and vibrant team; An experienced teamA young and vibrant team; A mature team
People between the ages of 24 and 39; People born between 1981 and 1996Generational labels (unless also specifying age range or years of birth)
Age number (“They are 45 years old.”)Age category (“They are middle-aged.”)

In this article, the author explores their experiences with ageism in the content development job market.

Gender & Sexuality

  • Uphold the values of gender equality in your texts. This can be reflected in many ways, such as opting for gender-neutral terms and pronouns, or eliminating language that reinforces gender-based stereotypes.
Use thisInstead of this
Polite, kind, etc.Gentlemanly or ladylike
If a professor requires assistance, they should contact the Rector.If a professor requires assistance, he or she should contact the Rector.
Humankind, ancestors, workforce, etc.Mankind, forefathers, manpower, etc.

The European Parliament’s guide to gender-neutral language offers some excellent tips.

Race, Ethnicity, Nationality & Religion

  • Discuss and address groups and communities in the way they prefer to be identified. This can mean capitalizing names and using preferred spellings of groups and cultural entities, while acknowledging diversity within them. It can also mean consciously avoiding sensationalist language, and not using idiomatic phrases with racist or problematic origins.
Use thisInstead of this
Irregular cross-border movement; A migrant in an irregular situationA flood/invasion/avalanche of migrants; Illegal alien/immigrant
Indigenous communities in CanadaCanada’s indigenous community
Common Era (CE) or Before the Common Era (BCE)Before Christ (BC) or Anno Domini (AD) 

This style guide, developed by Journalists for Human Rights, has helped us understand how to represent Indigenous communities in our writing. 

Learn more about key migration terms from the International Organization for Migration.

inclusive language

Socioeconomic Status 

  • Prioritize human dignity. When talking about individuals or groups in different socioeconomic situations, we should use respectful language and phrasing. Avoid language that implies that people with fewer socioeconomic privileges and resources are “lesser than” as a result.
Use thisInstead of this
Neighborhoods with access to fewer opportunities; Under-resourced neighborhoodsInner city; Distressed neighborhoods; Disadvantaged neighborhoods
People experiencing homelessness; People without homesHomeless people; The homeless
A person experiencing poverty; A person living at/below the poverty lineThe poor; A poor person; Poverty-stricken; Needy; Impoverished; The less fortunate/unfortunate

The American Psychological Association (APA) provides some insightful guidelines for bias-free language regarding socioeconomic status.

Fostering an inclusive future

At VeraContent, the process of developing our own inclusive language guide has fueled our interest in the topic. We’ve included a section in the guide where we share resources, articles, videos and links to online classes that allow us to keep learning how to make our content more inclusive.

Creating an inclusive language guide is an important step toward building a culture that values and promotes diversity and inclusion—but it’s just the beginning. As we learn, we make sure to update and add to our guidelines, while engaging in open discussions about our linguistic choices. We encourage you to do the same!

Want to learn more about inclusive language, equity and diversity from content marketing experts?

Thanks to Nikole Hyndman, Kyle Estment, Melissa Haun and Daphne Binioris for their work on this article, and to the members of the VeraImpact committee.