Inclusive Language Guide

Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa who led the country out of apartheid, once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

Words matter, Mandela was essentially saying. More specifically, the nuanced way we use language—with a mindfulness for the perspectives and feelings of others—shows respect and understanding or a lack thereof.

The idea of inclusive language is rooted in these ideas. It embraces language that is free from stereotypes, subtle discrimination, and negative messages.

“As we continue to grow and develop as a society, our language will continue to grow and develop, too,” said Dr. Michele Kerulis, a professor of counseling with Counseling@Northwestern. “And as people become more aware of multiculturalism and the fact that there is not just an ‘either/or’ but a ‘many,’ then people start to understand the importance and significance of language.”

Inclusive Language Definition

What is inclusive language? The Guidelines for Inclusive Language, published by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), define inclusive language as language that “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” 

How language is used, especially by governments and education systems, can deeply impact how we view race, gender, and cultures. There have been “linguistic consequences of racist policies and practices on an institutional level,” according to LSA’s Statement on Race. For example, “the xenophobic English-Only Movement” perpetuates the notion of “otherness.”

Similarly, people have become accustomed to so-called neutral language that defaults to masculine pronouns. It takes a conscious effort to speak in a way that is free of bias. 

“It is just rooted in our vocabulary. But we need to be looking at neutrality, looking at providing language that is inviting to all people,” Dr. Kerulis said, going on to explain that if an individual hears you speaking in a certain way that’s exclusionary, it isolates them from having a conversation with you. Being inclusive with language is about inviting people in for discussions, not making assumptions. 

Linguistics expert and LSA guidelines coordinator Dr. Kristen Syrett says that it’s easy to spot the “low-hanging fruit”—obvious, gender-specific words that we use every day but could easily be replaced by more inclusive language—like “congressman” instead of using the more inclusive “congressional representative.”

The challenge is how to teach people to avoid habits of language that may unintentionally lead to marginalization and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

Person-Centered Language

Person-centered language and person-first language are other terms that fall under the inclusive language umbrella. They are commonly used in health care settings and in the world of education.

John E. McIntyre, veteran editor and former president of ACES: The Society for Editing, wrote in a 2017 article that the two phrases seek to avoid categorizing people as disorders. They envelop the concept of honoring autonomy and “include enough scope to allow people to identify themselves as they choose,” wrote McIntyre, who is a content editor and columnist for the Baltimore Sun

Why is word choice important? In mental health care, the use of person-centered language is critical to recovery. Person-first word choice shows sensitivity to the individual and allows them to be seen first as people and not as their mental health condition. 

Dr. Kerulis says that it’s imperative for health care providers to use person-centered language because it creates a safe space for patients and provides an open and welcoming environment for them. Even the books lined up on a counselor’s shelf can send messaging that’s not inclusive.

Still, people commonly get lumped into categories, Dr. Kerulis said. For instance, the phrase “those with mental health issues” often pops up in the media. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the handbook used by health care professionals in the United States, however, has almost 947 pages of what mental illness means. 

“We can’t just say someone has mental illness and make it a blanket statement,” Dr. Kerulis said. Specific, person-first language is a much better choice.

Intersectionality

Intersectionality, a word added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017, is also associated with inclusive language. The word is defined as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.” 

Civil rights advocate and legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw first used the word “intersectionality” in a 1989 essay (PDF, 1.7 MB). She argued in her writing that antidiscrimination law, feminist theory, and antiracist politics fall short when it comes to recognizing the experiences of black women. 

Recent efforts aimed at addressing intersectionality, specifically among people of Latin American descent, include the introduction of the word “Latinx,” which is defined by researchers as “an inclusive term that recognizes the intersectionality of sexuality, language, immigration, ethnicity, culture, and phenotype.” Additionally, the inclusion of “x” in Latinx removes the need for gender specifics found in Latina/o. 

Inclusive Language Examples

Inclusive language embraces all areas of life—from the way everyday concepts are described to recognizing diverse families, physical and mental health, and gender identity and sexual orientation.

The way people communicate sends subtle messages that can have a powerful effect. “We want to reevaluate the terms we use even when we don’t think we’re using them in a way to discriminate against people,” Dr. Syrett said. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we conveying messages we aren’t even aware of?’”

Following are some inclusive language recommendations and their exclusionary counterparts listed by topic. Keep in mind, though, that not all groups may agree on what’s inclusive language and what’s not, and that is because language is a living and ever-evolving thing, which means the terms on this list may shift and change with time.

Addiction Language

Words and phrases used for people with addictions often add to the stigma of mental health conditions, which are a combination of genetic and other factors.

Addiction Language
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Addict Someone struggling with addiction
Substance abuse Substance use disorder, people living with substance use disorder
Alcoholic Someone with alcoholism, someone with an alcohol problem
On the wagon, recovering drug addict In recovery

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Criminal Justice Language

When referring to people who have committed crimes, use language that decriminalizes and recognizes that oppression is at the basis of many forms of crime. Use language that also supports accountability, rehabilitation, and healing.

Criminal Justice Language
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Drug lord Person who was arrested for selling drugs
Ex-con, felon, predators People in prison, people on parole, people with criminal convictions, people formerly convicted

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Demographic and Race Language

LSA’s statement on race says that “race is widely viewed by scholars in numerous disciplines as a social construct, rather than a biological fact,” yet racial classification has been at the core of racist government and social policies, such as the systematic destruction of Native American languages.

Ask how someone prefers to be identified. Do not specify race or age, for example, unless there is relevance.

Demographic and Race Language
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Oriental Asian (describing the customs, people, and culture or a particular area of Asia; be specific when possible)
Alien, foreigners, “those people” Immigrant, visitors, travelers
Indian Native American, American Indian, First Nation, or Indigenous person
Ethnic, urban People or person of color, multiracial
Old person, young person Person
The elderly Older adults

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Ability Language

About 1 in 4 US adults—61 million Americans—has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disability means that in some way they experience restrictions in activities such as walking, learning, or talking. Take a “person-first” approach, recommends the American Psychological Association: Focus on the person, not their condition.

Ability Language
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Disabled person, handicapped, crippled, challenged Person with a disability
Wheelchair-bound Person who uses a wheelchair

Do not use the word “normal” to describe people without disabilities, as it implies that people with disabilities are abnormal. It’s important to note that some individuals with disabilities may prefer “identity-first” language, meaning their disability is part of their identity, in which case the use of "amputee” or "disabled person” may be okay. Again, when in doubt, just ask.

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Gender Inclusive Language

Commonly used nouns and phrases often include the word “man” or reference men, which sends a subtle message of exclusivity, Dr. Syrett said.

Gender Inclusive Language
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Him, her, she, he They
Man Person, individual
Stewardess Flight attendant
Actress Actor
Congressman Congressional representative, legislator
Man and wife Husband and wife or partners
“Ladies” or “office girls” Office staff
Gendered Gender
Transgender(s) as a noun, transgendered Transgender person
Bathroom bill Non-discrimination law
Sex-change or sex-change operation Sex reassignment (SRS) or gender affirming surgery
“Hey, guys” as a greeting “Hey, everyone” or “Hi all”
Mankind People, human beings, humanity
Freshman First-year student
Mailman Mail or letter carrier

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Medical Language

Health care providers have begun to use person-centered language more often as a part of person-centered care in order to support the dignity of individual patients.

Medical Language
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Sufferer Survivor
Suffering from Living with, being treated for
Diabetic Person with diabetes
Albino Person with albinism
Dwarf Short stature, someone with dwarfism

There are some exceptions: “Deaf person” or “deaf people,” “deaf community,” or “hard of hearing” are acceptable terms for many people. Words such as "impaired/impairment" and "loss" imply a lack of something, and those who are fully immersed in Deaf culture don't usually define themselves that way. Those who refer to themselves as “hearing impaired” or as having “hearing loss” may have lost their hearing later in life or for another reason, and are not typically part of the cultural Deaf community. 

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) advocates for person-first language and the use of “a person who is blind” or “a person with low vision,” while other advocacy organizations suggest the use of “blind person.” An individual’s preference should be honored. But do avoid “the blind” as a collective noun, AFB recommends, and do not use phrases such as “she suffers from blindness or is “afflicted by” or other words that imply a person is a victim of their condition.

Avoid references such as "victim” (e.g., stroke victim), “sufferer,” and “stricken” across the board. These terms suggest weakness or pity or assume that all people with a particular condition suffer. Be sensitive to the fact that calling someone with a disability “brave” or a “hero” may seem like a compliment, but it can be equally uncomfortable for them. Above all, ask the individual how they wish to be defined. 

Also, the term “health disparities” is now being replaced by the term “health inequalities” and “health equality” among some people and organizations. 

“Whatever strategy you adopt, ask yourself are you labeling this person and defining them by their diagnosis or making their health issues secondary to who they are,” Dr. Syrett said.

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Mental Health Language

Learning the language of mental health is key to communicating with patients and colleagues in the field.

Mental Health Language
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Mentally ill, crazy, insane, psycho, schizo Person with DSM diagnosis
Bipolar person or “they’re bipolar” Someone with bipolar disorder
Down’s, retarded, mentally disabled Person with Down syndrome

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Socioeconomic Language

Sometimes it’s referred to as the “language of poverty” or “language related to class.” Those who grew up in or currently live in places with few resources understand that words that describe socioeconomic status influence the way a person or their community is viewed and how they view themselves. Using language that maintains the dignity of individuals and communities and not laying blame on populations is pivotal.

Socioeconomic Language
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Inner city Under-resourced
Disinvested Low-opportunity
Disadvantaged Neighborhoods with high poverty rates
Distressed neighborhoods Neighborhoods with access to fewer opportunities
Working poor Hardworking, working hard to make ends meet
Homeless people or “the homeless” People experiencing homelessness
Food desert, food stamps, the hungry Food insecurity, food poverty, worker welfare, hunger

Use the word “clients,” not recipients, when referring to people who participate in programs or agencies that provide services.

Educators in under-resourced communities should avoid referring to students as “at risk” because it is stigmatizing and perpetuates stereotypes and negativity in the minds of students and others.

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Language Matters

Inclusive language is about more than replacing specific words with more acceptable terms; it’s about changing long-held attitudes and habits we don’t think twice about but that the youngest of children, who are just learning to speak and read, hear over and over.

“It is super important that we help the generations that are growing up now to become aware,” said Dr. Syrett. “We have to help them become critical and not be passive sponges.”

At its core, Dr. Kerulis said that inclusive language is based on kindness and curiosity—learning and caring about others as individuals.

Citation for this content: Counseling@Northwestern, the Online Master of Arts in Counseling program from The Family Institute at Northwestern University.