Writing inclusively

Date adopted: 
August 15, 2020
Last update: 
September 24, 2021

Writing inclusively is about being aware that using a word can sometimes have unintended consequences and reduce the perceived value of individuals and groups or of people’s experiences. The consequences of using certain words or phrases can have very real impacts on thoughts, behaviour, culture and organizational priorities.

However, when it comes to gender and other identities, we must also make sure we distinguish between “inclusive” and “neutral” language. For example, when we’re gathering information from Yukoners, it’s important that we include all gender and other identities. We must not avoid collecting information about diverse identities and we must not avoid complex discussions in favour of a more neutral approach. Government staff can email ecoinfo@yukon.ca for guidance on this.

Gender-neutral text

Part of writing inclusively is making sure text is gender neutral wherever possible.

Not: he/she, his or her
But: they, their

Names

Not: Christian name, first name
But: given name

Not: surname, last name
But: family name

Objects

Use “it” rather than “she” or “her” to describe ships, nature, nations, cars, engines, gas tanks and so on.

Parallel treatment

Avoid highlighting gender and ethnicity if it is not relevant.

Avoid unnecessary descriptions

Not: Aboriginal woman Minister of Justice Jane Doe tabled a bill.
But: Minister of Justice Jane Doe tabled a bill.

Use gender neutral words

Not: actress, fireman, businessman, spokesman, chairman
But: actor, firefighter, businessperson, spokesperson, chair
Not: man a booth
But: staff a booth

The word “ombudsman” is an exception and is accepted by many people as being gender neutral.

The word “grandfathering” is also not a word that can be simply switched for a gender neutral term (“grandparenting”). It has a complicated story with roots in the history of voting rights for people in the US who were formerly slaves.

Tips to help you avoid describing people differently because of their gender or ethnicity.

  • When you do not know who you’re addressing or do not know someone’s preferred pronoun or self-identification, use “they” or their job title or role, such as manager, councillor, director, committee member, home owner, parent, reader, teacher, delegate, participant.
  • If you’re using a title (honorific), use Ms. when you're referring to a woman unless she has indicated a preference for Mrs. or Miss.
  • To check for descriptions that may be sexist, try substituting a man for a woman in the situation or role.
  • Avoid hidden sexism or words that have been traditionally used only to describe specific genders, such as the word “shrill” to describe a woman’s voice rather a man’s or the phrase “working mom” rather than “working parent.”
  • Beware of stereotypes, such as assuming child care is only delivered by women. This applies to choosing images as well as words.

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are words we use to refer to people without using their name, such as she/her, he/him or they/them. Pronouns are an important part of who we are and how we identify.

Using someone’s correct personal pronouns is a way to respect them and create an inclusive environment, just like using a person’s name is a way to respect them. Sharing your own name and pronouns signals to other people that you’re interested in learning their preferred pronouns.

People do not always use the pronouns that you may expect. It’s important not to assume someone’s gender based on their name or appearance. When a person shares their pronouns, respect and use them when you refer to that person.

Share your pronouns in your email signature

Adding the pronouns you use to your email signature is a clear and simple way to communicate that information to the people you interact with internally and externally.

By adding your pronouns to your signature, you:

  • communicate that you’re aware that this is an important piece of information; and
  • help create a work culture where it’s the norm to inquire about people’s pronouns so you do not accidentally use the wrong ones.

See the formatting guidance on including pronouns in your email signature.

How do I ask someone what pronouns they use?

Asking an individual

You can simply ask. For example:

  • "My name is Reina and my pronouns are she and her. What about you?" (This is probably the most respectful way to ask.)
  • "What pronouns do you use?"
  • "How would you like me to refer to you?"

Asking in a group

You can invite people to share their name and pronouns during an introduction round. It’s a good idea to go first so you can model how to say it in case you’re with a group of people who may not be familiar with the practice.

While these are good ways to normalize asking for pronouns, remember that some people may:

  • use different pronouns in different settings;
  • change what pronouns they use over time; or
  • prefer not to share their pronouns.

What if I get someone's pronouns wrong?

Apologize briefly, correct yourself and continue speaking.  Most importantly, ensure that you use the correct pronouns next time.

Why should I use the gender-neutral ‘they’ when someone’s gender is irrelevant or unknown?

We already do this naturally when we do not know the gender of the person we’re referring to. For example, “I think someone left their wallet behind in the waiting room.”

In some cases, you may see the terms “s/he” or “he/she”. However, these are not inclusive of people who use other pronouns. Never use these in government materials. Use the gender-neutral “they” in sentences when you do not know the gender of the person or it’s irrelevant.

Sexual identity

LGBTQ2S+ 
2SLGBTQQIA+

Write out the full abbreviation in words first, followed by the abbreviation in brackets.

  • lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, Two-Spirit plus (LGBTQ2S+)
  • Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA+)

Do not assume that your readers will understand the abbreviation without it being spelled out in full. 

References:

Writing about disabilities

View the writing about disabilities guidance