8 Types of Non-Inclusive Language To Avoid

InclusivitySEO + Content Marketing

The Inclusivity Tool was designed to help content creators follow the best practices around using inclusive language. Many organizations have been working with marginalized populations for decades while the study of how language impacts culture is only in its infancy. As a starting point, the Inclusivity Tool defines 9 categories of non-inclusive speech:

CategoryExplanation
PejorativeInsult with a negative connotation.
OutdatedWas and/or is used commonly, but has offensive origins and usage. These terms can be triggering for audiences that know this history. 
GeneralizationBroadly states that something is true/false, when it isn’t always true/false.
GenderedGendered language emphasizes 2 genders and bias toward masculine language. Commonly seen when referring to professions (e.g. mailman). 
Health DiscriminationIdentifies people by their condition rather than their personhood.
MisappropriationTerm that is used or reclaimed within a marginalized community, that is then misappropriated by the dominant culture.
SlurA derogatory statement that is directly offensive and meant to harm someone. The Inclusivity Tool does not directly search for these as its usage is intentionally meant to other and insult people. 
ProfanitySocially impolite, but can be used lightheartedly e.g. using curse words after hurting yourself. The Inclusivity Tool doesn’t look for curse words as they aren’t prevalent in the website copy of the audiences we work with.

Theme: Put People First 

Meaning: Refer to the person over the condition. Do not label a person by their otherness – use their name rather than distilling their identity to an illness, condition, or temporary state.

Instances: Lori Johnson (not autistic Lori), child with cancer (not terminal child), student with a hearing impairment (not deaf students).

Theme: Avoid Jargon and Idioms 

Meaning: Use precise language, avoid jargon and idioms. Do not assume an understanding of terms specific to a field or topic. It is better to be explicit than implicit. State precisely what you mean instead of assuming the reader knows your point of view or meaning. Jargon refers to terms that are specific and meaningful in a certain context, but cross-referencing both words and topics from more general categories may lead to misuse. Idiom refers to a group of words used together that have an alternate meaning, these are also referred to as expressions or sayings.

Instances: Using “sanity check” instead of validation check, because it references mental health in an inappropriate way.

Theme: Avoid the victimization of a population 

Meaning: Avoid labeling or identifying neutral processes such as aging, evolution, or politics as a whole with negative words. These phrases introduce barriers between people and create an air of negativity that is reinforced by language.

Instance: Identify “people who have problems resulting from aging” (that age) but do not describe the process of being old itself as an affliction. Instead, use language that empowers e.g. “people living with disabilities” vs. “the disabled” and “under-resourced students” vs. “the poor.”

Theme: Use Neutral over Gendered Language

Meaning: Do not use gendered terms (masculine and feminine pronouns), words, or grammar when they are not necessary. Doing so implies that one is the norm while all others deserve different treatment. The term “gender-neutral” may be confusing because some people view gender as an artificial construct while others consider it innate; often both perspectives are present at the same time in one person’s psyche. 

Instances: Using gendered terms to describe general professions like ‘Mailman’, ‘stewardess’, ‘salesman’, and ‘spokesman’ append male attributes vs a neutral phrasing. 

Theme: Accommodating Communication Style 

Meaning: Use the communication method that works best for the person. If a speaker is using sign language do not talk over them and ignore what they are saying. Let them complete their sentence in their own time. If someone has difficulty expressing themselves verbally but would prefer it over writing, then allow for this in conversation.

Big picture, the words that organizations use have meaning and may indirectly contribute to very issues they seek to help. Considering these themes of inclusive language when writing about under-resourced communities or groups dealing with illness will help make sure that the intent of your words matches your intention.

Try out the Inclusivity Tool to make sure the words you use resonate with your audience.