Using gender-inclusive language

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No matter how others identify, it is important to respect the words people use to describe themselves. Learn tips about how to be more gender-inclusive and use gender-neutral language.

Key points

  • Gender-inclusive language is language that either respects a person’s preferred terms or does not favour a particular sex.
  • Language that respects a person’s preferred terms includes the name and pronouns that they use to describe themselves.
  • Language that does not favour a particular sex includes gender-neutral terms like they, them, person, individual, patient, family member, parent, partner, sibling, etc.
  • Pronouns are words that are used as a substitute for a person’s name when talking about them in the third person. Pronouns can be gender specific (e.g., she/he) or gender neutral (e.g., they).
  • If you make a mistake about a person’s name, terms or pronouns, it can be helpful to apologize, correct yourself, and move on.

Why is gender-inclusive lanuage important?

No matter how others identify, it is important to respect the words people use to describe themselves. How someone is addressed can make a big difference in making them feel welcome. It may take some extra thinking and practice, but using gender-inclusive language can be helpful to make everyone you meet feel heard and avoid mistakes made when making assumptions.

What is gender-inclusive language?

Gender-inclusive language is language that either respects a person’s preferred terms or does not favour a particular sex.

Language that respects a person’s preferred terms includes the name and pronouns that they use to describe themselves. If you know how someone wishes to be addressed, or if you ask them what terms they prefer, you should use those terms provided. For example:

  • Sandra is a good friend of yours who has told you that she prefers to be called Sandy and referred to as she/her.

Language that does not favour a particular sex includes gender-neutral terms. If you don’t know how someone wishes to be addressed and are not comfortable asking, you should default to gender-neutral terms. For example:

  • You have just met Quinn via email, so you refer to them as they/them until you ask for their preferred pronouns or get to know them better.

Pronouns

When used to describe people, pronouns are words that are used as a substitute for a person’s name. Pronouns are typically used in the third-person point of view, when you are talking about other people or other people are talking about you. For example:

  • Kelly used her allowance money to buy herself some new shoes.
  • Tim works at the grocery store. He is my favourite cashier!
  • Charlie loves to play basketball with their friends after school.

Pronouns can be gender specific (e.g., she/he, her/him, hers/his, herself/himself) or gender neutral (e.g., they, them, their, themselves) when referring to individuals. There are many other gender-neutral pronouns that include (but are not limited to) ze/zir/zirself, xie/hir/hirself, xe/xem/xyr/xemself.

Gender-neutral language

It is always helpful to use the singular they when you are unsure of what pronouns to use to avoid pronoun mistakes. However, there are other gender-neutral terms that can help you with being gender-inclusive. Below is a brief list of titles and terms that are considered gender-neutral:

Gender-neutral title/termInstead of…
Applicant
ChildDaughter/son
Client
Employee
Family member
Flight attendantStewardess/steward
GrandchildGranddaughter/grandson
GrandparentGrandmother/grandfather
Group member
Health-care provider
Individual
MxMs/Mrs/Mr
NiblingNiece/nephew
Parent or guardianMother/father
Patient
Person
Police officerPoliceman
Postal workerMailman
SiblingSister/brother
Significant otherGirlfriend/boyfriend
Spouse or partnerWife/husband
Student

What if I make a mistake?

Most people try their best to treat others with respect, but sometimes we make mistakes when referring to other people’s names, terms or pronouns. It’s important to remember that mistakes happen to all of us, and it is how we move past the mistakes that really counts. In these situations, it can be helpful to apologize, correct yourself, and move on.

Apologize

You might recognize your mistake or the person you are talking to might point it out. Regardless of how the mistake is identified, you should acknowledge it and say that you are sorry.

Example:

Carrie: “I was talking to Carmen today, and she said she wanted to go to the mall after school.”

Michael: “Carmen identifies as non-binary. They don’t use she/her pronouns.”

Carrie: “Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

Correct yourself

In addition to apologizing, you should also correct your mistake. If you know how you slipped-up, go ahead and proceed with what you meant to say. If you are unsure about how you might have made a mistake, it is okay to politely ask for the correct name, term or pronoun.

Example:

Carrie: “What pronouns does Carmen prefer?”

Michael: “They told me that they use they/them pronouns.”

Carrie: “Oh, I see. I was talking to them today, and they said they wanted to go to the mall after school.”

Move on

Once you have corrected yourself, it is helpful not to dwell on your mistake. The person you are talking to might accept your apology, and they also might not. Their forgiveness is not mandatory, but you can always learn from the encounter and use it moving forward to avoid future mistakes.

Example:

Michael: “That’s okay. I’m sure Carmen would understand. Just be sure to use the correct pronouns going forward.”

Carrie: “I will. Thanks for letting me know!”

Last updated: June 21st 2021