Inclusivity also refers to avoiding words your audience may find disrespectful, condescending, or patronizing. This guide for U.S. federal employees offers specific guidance on terms that are less offensive to listeners. Keep in mind that the public meaning of these words often changes with time.
The words we use can make the difference between forging positive connections or creating distance in our personal and professional lives. Particularly in writing, impact is more important than intent. As we build government services, we want to ensure they are accessible and welcoming to everyone who needs to use them. Inclusive language helps us to be more accurate and build trust with our users. This page is not exhaustive, but aims to provide principles, resources, and specific suggestions for writing and talking about diverse groups of people.
Ability and Disability
Every person is a whole person – no matter how they interact with the world. Focus on what they need to do, what tools they use, and avoid making assumptions. If a person's situation, medical condition, illness, or injury is relevant to the content, be as specific as possible and avoid inserting value judgments about their circumstance (for example, use has multiple sclerosis, not is afflicted with or suffers from).
Just like with language around race, gender, or other identities, it is always best to ask people how they identify rather than assuming. For help finding appropriate or accurate language, see the Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism.
- Avoid describing people as disabled, handicapped, or confined to a wheelchair.
- Avoid terms that contribute to stigmas around disability or mental illness: crazy, dumb, lame, insane, psycho, schizophrenic, or stupid.
- Avoid terms that contribute to stigmas around sensory disabilities: blind spot or tone-deaf.
Avoid referring to someone's age, unless it is relevant to what you are writing about (for example, when referring to benefits that are available to people of certain ages).
- Do not use women or older relatives as a substitute for novice or beginner. For example, do not say something is so simple your mother can use it.
- We prefer older person or senior to elderly.
Gender and Sexuality
Make content gender-neutral wherever possible, and strive to write in a gender-fair way. If you are writing about a hypothetical person or if you are unsure of the person's pronouns, use they or them instead of he/she.
Avoid words and phrases that indicate gender bias, such as irrelevant descriptions of appearance.
Use descriptors of gender identity or sexual orientation as modifiers, not as nouns (for example, transgender person, cisgender person, or lesbian woman). Avoid guessing sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. When in doubt, either reconsider the need to include this information or ask the person you are referring to how they identify and what terms they prefer.
- Use different sex instead of opposite sex (because this recognizes gender as a spectrum, rather than a binary).
- We support using they or their as singular pronouns.
- Avoid guys as a way to refer to mixed-gender groups.
- Do not make assumptions about marital or family relationships (for example, use spouse or partner instead of husband and wife; use parent instead of mother and father).
For more detailed guidance, see the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Style Guide or the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.
Avoid using citizen as a generic term for people who live in the United States. Many government programs serve non-citizens and individuals with a wide range of immigration and visa statuses.
How you refer to the public is largely dependent on context. Feel free to choose from any of these words: people, the public, users, or folks.
Be as specific as possible. Depending on the situation, you may want to say something like people who need healthcare or people who need to access government services online.
Use citizens for information related to U.S. citizenship, for example, when describing who is eligible to vote in federal elections.
Be careful with Americans or the American public. These terms are ambiguous and are often used as synonyms for citizens. In most cases, the public is equally clear and more inclusive. That said, referring to Americans or the American people can be useful if you want to inspire readers or take a more patriotic tone.
Race, Ethnicity, and Religion
Avoid using words, images, or situations that reinforce racial, ethnic, or religious stereotypes (even stereotypes that may appear to be positive). Avoid the term non-white or other terms that treat whiteness as a default.
Do not make assumptions: ask how people identify themselves, and be aware of complexities within racial, ethnic, and religious identities. For example, not all Arabs are Muslim, and many nationalities and ethnicities include various religious practices and traditions.
When referring to a person's race or ethnicity, use adjectives, not nouns (for example, a Hispanic person, not a Hispanic).
Media Style Guides for Race, Ethnicity, and Religion
- National Association of Black Journalists Style Guide
- Asian American Journalists Association Handbook
- Native American Journalists Association Reporter's Indigenous Terminology Guide
- Religion Newswriters Foundation's Religion Stylebook
Source: U.S. General Services Administration, https://content-guide.18f.gov/inclusive-language/
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