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A short guide to writing inclusively

Plain English and the law

Writing quotes: 'Vigorous writing is concise'

 

A short guide to writing inclusively

Introduction

Writing inclusively means writing to include all humans, and not excluding individuals or groups whether by accident or design. The European Commission has emphasised the importance of care with the use of language: ‘Language is a reflection of the attitudes, behaviours and norms within a society. It also shapes people's attitudes as to what is “normal” and acceptable.’ The National Disability Authority of Ireland asserts that language should ‘reflect the individuality, equality or dignity of people’. Many people think of inclusive language as applying to gender, but it is much wider than that.

Research has shown that designating people by their individuality and common humanity first helps other people to view them in a more neutral way. For example, referring to people seeking refuge rather than refugees makes people think differently about them, focusing on them as people rather than as refugees. Other attributes of people relevant to inclusive language are gender, race, disability, religion and sexual orientation, among others.

In essence, we are all human and we all have our own particular attributes, some of which, unfortunately, have negative connotations for various reasons. What we want to do is talk about different groups of people in a way that acknowledges differences but remains neutral. The following sets out some general guidelines on how to talk about various groups of people in an inclusive way.

1. Research how people prefer to be identified

Research the ways the people in the communities you're writing about prefer to be identified and use the terms they prefer. Avoid terms that remove personhood or that define people by a disability or similar attribute. Some groups like to refer to the community aspect, as in the Deaf community, the Traveller community. In Ireland people who provide care for relatives or friends prefer the term family carer to the previously used informal carer.

2. Refer to the specific attribute only when necessary

The guideline that we should refer to a specific attribute only when necessary speaks for itself. If there is no reason to refer to the attribute in question, then don’t mention it. For example, in text like ‘The capable Asian manager made the staff feel part of a team’, the use of Asian is superfluous as the manager’s race has no relevance to the rest of the statement. Of course, in a discussion of different nationalities in working environments, it may be appropriate, so context is important.

3. Use language that focuses on personhood rather than on a specific attribute

An important tenet for human rights organisations is that labels are for files, not for people. When we need to refer to specific attributes of groups, we emphasise the person first and the attribute after. This rule is best illustrated by some examples:

  • People with disabilities for 'the disabled'
  • People who are blind for 'the blind'
  • People from low-income backgrounds for 'the poor'
  • People seeking asylum for 'asylum-seekers'.

4. Use positive language

When we use a phrase such as non-Catholic, we are defining someone else by what they are not rather than what they are. Instead of using non-Catholic use Buddhist, Methodist or whatever is relevant. Rather than non-Irish use the person’s place of origin.

5. Avoid stereotyping

All of us tend to stereotype to some extent, depending on our life experiences, and we do so unthinkingly, without any intention of excluding people. However, negative stereotypes should be avoided. Gender is a common aspect of stereotyping:

  • The doctor updated his records.
  • The secretary rushed through her work.

Avoid stereotyping by social class and age group also, if only for the reason that such a statement can never be true:

  • The elderly are always complaining.
  • Young people today are frivolous.
  • The rich never pay their taxes.

6. Dealing with particular attributes

Gender: In relation to gender, until recently much writing in many fields used only the pronoun he. Clauses like the following were often used at the beginning of a book or other document: ‘Where the context so requires, the use of the masculine gender shall include the feminine’. This type of usage has now been side-lined in favour of inclusive writing, and many publishers have specific guidelines for authors regarding inclusive writing.

Professional organisations such as the United Nations are also adopting guidelines on inclusive writing, with the advice: ‘Make gender visible when it is relevant for communication; do not make gender visible when it is not relevant for communication.’ In other words, use gendered language only when it is relevant to know the gender of the person being discussed. Other aspects of gender inclusivity include the following:

Use neutral nouns: avoid the use of man if not specifically referring to men; for example, for man use humans; for mankind use the human race; for manpower use workforce; for chairman use chair.

Use the singular they: although gender-neutral pronouns have been the subject of heated debate, common usage has left the academic discussions behind. The use of the singular they/their has become acceptable and mainstream and can be used to replace the more awkward he/she, s/he, his/her formats. Many major publishers and media now accept this usage. For example:

    • A researcher in this area will note that he needs support from the authorities.
    • A researcher in this area will note that they need support from the authorities.

Age: The basic rule applies when referring to older people: the best way is to refer to them simply as older people. This focuses on their personhood in a way that phrases like the elderly do not. They are people like everyone else, and one aspect to them is that they are part of the older population.

Race: Regarding race, again refer to it only if it is necessary to do so. Say Black person rather than Black, but if you do this then also say White person. It is not that we want to remove all references to race, because race is a highly important aspect of identity. Rather we want to treat it as an attribute like any other, to be used in the same way for people of all races.

Disability or illness: Many terms that were used for a long time in the area of disability are outdated and no longer acceptable. Be aware of paternalism when discussing disability, and make sure to use person-first language. Newer terms in use are shown below:

  • person with an intellectual disability (replaces 'mental handicap')
  • non-disabled person
  • person with a mental health disability
  • people with a disability (replaces 'disabled').

Avoid the word normal when writing about disability as well as loaded words such as suffers or victim. Instead of suffers from simply use has: ‘X suffers from dementia’ (poor), ‘X has dementia’ (better).

Religion and sexual orientation: Writing inclusively about religion and sexual orientation are huge topics in their own right and require more consideration than can be given here. The most important rule is to research what terms people in different groups prefer.

Conclusion

To some people, paying attention to inclusive language is political correctness gone mad. To others it is a genuine attempt to discuss issues in a way that avoids being hurtful. Let’s just say, difference makes life interesting.

Sources

 

Plain English and the law

This guide to the use of plain English in legal matters was published by the National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) and Mason, Hayes & Curran Solicitors in February 2017. It includes guidelines for writing in plain English, and suggests plain English terms to replace legal 'jargon'. The guide can be downloaded here.

 

Writing quotes: 'Vigorous writing is concise'

 William Strunk's 1918 book The Elements of Style is still an excellent resource for every writer, especially those who write to explain or inform. Strunk was professor of English at Cornell University. In a section entitled 'Omit needless words', he has this advice:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

The book can be found online here: http://www.bartleby.com/141/