Language & Grammar

Inclusive & Antiracist Language

Inclusive language means paying attention to the ways that language can be, and has been, used to exclude people or groups of people—whether intentionally or unintentionally. It is also about understanding that language is always changing. Rather than giving you a list of perceived best terms, this resource aims to help you think more intentionally about the words you choose.

Note: while most of the following content has been adapted from guides on inclusive writing—particularly the SFU Student Learning Commons’ Inclusive and Anti-racist Writing Guide—our thinking around inclusive language should also include spoken language.

Principles of inclusive and antiracist writing

  • Question assumptions, generalizations and perceived “norms”—especially the ones we have never noticed before.
  • Choose words thoughtfully and carefully.
  • Seek feedback from external readers, especially those whose experiences differ from your own.
  • Try to remember that receiving feedback—especially critical feedback—is an opportunity to learn more and improve your craft.

Gender identity and sexual orientation

When writing about gender identity and sexual orientation, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  Instead of... Try....
Avoid heteronormative assumptions "The child's mother or father..." "The child's parent or guardian..."
Avoid dismissing people's identities as preferences "Sexual preferences," "preferred pronouns" "Sexual orientation," "pronouns"
Avoid unneccessarily gendered terms "We'll need more manpower..." "We'll need more staff..."
Ensure your language is inclusive of those who identify as nonbinary "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!" "Welcome, everyone!"
Separate biology/anatomy from gender "Women sometimes experience cramps before or during their period..." “People who menstruate sometimes experience cramps before or during their period…”

Quick tip: If gender is relevant to your topic, make it visible in your writing. But if your topic has nothing to do with a specific gender, make it invisible (genderless).

Black peoples, Indigenous Peoples, People(s) of Colour (BIPOC)

When writing on or about equity-deserving groups, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Do your research: BIPOC have historically been misrepresented in and harmed by written texts. Ensure that you do your due diligence to learn about language, terminology and relevant style conventions, and that you are writing with as much accuracy as you can.
  • Be specific: Write specifically and directly about the experiences of particular people or groups of people, rather than making broad generalizations.
    • For example, if your story is about the experiences of Black community members, say “Black” instead of “BIPOC”; when writing about a specific Indigenous person or Nation, name that Nation rather than using a blanket term such as “Indigenous.”
  • Choose words with care: Think carefully about the meaning of common words and phrases before defaulting to them. For example, the term “African American” should not be used without consideration, as not all Black people identify as African and/or American.

Quick tip: When writing about Indigenous Peoples and languages, avoid using phrases that imply possession—e.g. say “Indigenous Peoples in Canada” instead of “Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.” Indigneous Peoples do not belong to Canada, nor do their languages.

Ableism, disability, mental health and neurodiversity

  • Think critically about relevance: Often, a person’s disability, mental health or neurodiverse status is not relevant to the matter being discussed. When writing, ask yourself if the inclusion of this information is necessary, or if doing so would reinforce negative stereotypes or otherwise cause harm.
  • Frame ideas carefully: when writing about disability, mental health or neurodivergence, avoid using words that carry value judgements and/or framing these aspects of the human experiences as deficits or abnormal
    • For example:
      • Say “wheelchair user” rather than “wheelchair-bound person”
      • Avoid the terms “defect,” “suffers from,” “victim” and “struggle”
  • Learn about person-first and identity-first language 
    • When working with story subjects from any of these communities, ensure that you ask about and respect their preferences for person-first vs. identity-first language.
      • Person-first language focuses on the person before providing a label—e.g. “person with autism”. 
      • Identity-first language emphasizes that someone’s disability is a part of who they are, and is not a shameful designation—e.g. “autistic person".