Section 5: Inclusive language

Language is a powerful tool for communicating inclusivity or discrimination. Language is not neutral. It is closely tied to the personality of the communicator and the culture and society in which it is used.

Inclusive communication that respects and includes all communities is free from sexist, racist or other discriminatory language. It does not inadvertently exclude groups and it avoids stereotyping, loaded words and patronizing descriptors.

Preferred terms change as language evolves. People’s views differ in terms of values, preferences and practices, and writers should be sensitive to these differences. There are no right answers to the use of some contested words. Where there are conflicting preferences, the terms used in Canadian law are acceptable.

It is important to consult regularly about language. Often different people prefer to be described in different ways. If possible, ask people for their preferred descriptors and honour individual preferences.

For further information, see the UVic Equity Office website:

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5.1 Guiding principles

In all references, be guided by the preference of those concerned if possible.

  • Remember that there is a difference between in-group and out-group naming. For example, a person may have reclaimed a once derogatory term and may use this term to refer to himself or herself; however, the same term may offend when used by someone from outside that community.
  • Avoid stereotyping descriptors.
  • Avoid making distinctions on the basis of physical attributes, including age, unless these are necessary in the context.
  • Avoid using offensive language or assuming that all meaning and intentions will be understood.

5.2 Indigenous Peoples

In all references, be guided by the preference of those concerned if possible.

Capitalize terms referring to a specific Aboriginal ethnic group.

Aboriginal Peoples, First Nations, First Peoples, Indigenous, Inuit, Métis
Aboriginal art
Indigenous communities

Some preferred terms at UVic: Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nations, Métis, Inuit.

“Indigenous” is preferred as being more reflective of the recognition of a wider global community. “Indigenous” and “Original Peoples” are used for a more “global” acknowledgement.

Indigenous governance
Indigenous working group for the United Nations
Indigenous Peoples of North America

“Aboriginal” is used in legislation to refer to Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. It is legally inclusive of Métis, First Nations and Inuit. The Federal Contractors Program identifies Aboriginal Peoples as one of the designated groups for employment equity.

Although the constitution uses the distinctions “status” and “non-status,” these two terms are highly contested and not preferred.

“First Nations” typically refers to those peoples who are “status,” usually have membership with a band, nation or treaty group and generally have a card from the government, but use of the term in this narrow sense—rather than in a more general sense—is contested as well.

The singular of “Inuit” is “Inuk,” and their language is Inuktitut. The Inuit of the western Arctic call themselves Inuvialuit.

Some Aboriginal people identify more closely with their tribal or linguistic group designation, e.g. Coast Salish, and prefer the use of the name of the community. Try to identify the tribal affiliation or community, for example: Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwaguilth, St’at’imc. Use Aboriginal spellings for the names of communities.

Rather than the word “reserve,” preferred reference is to “community,” “ancestry” or “home.”

The word “Native” is not usually used formally, but among Aboriginal groups with each other or for some social organizations, for example: “Native Student Union” at UVic.

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5.3 Sex and gender

According to the World Health Organization, “sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women. “Gender” refers to socially constructed roles, behaviours, mannerisms, activities and attributes. “Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories. Aspects of sex will not vary substantially between different human societies, while aspects of gender may vary greatly.

In all references, be guided by the preference of those concerned if possible.

Use inclusive terms rather than those that make sex distinctions.

“humankind” rather than “mankind”
“staffing the office” rather than “manning the office”
“ancestors” rather than “forefathers”
“working hours” rather than “man hours”
“artificial,” “synthetic,” or “constructed” rather than “man-made”

Use parallel references to the sexes.

women and men; husband and wife

When the sex or gender is unknown or a group is composed of both men and women, avoid using the masculine pronoun as a generic pronoun. Do not write, e.g., “If an instructor needs a new computer, he should contact his dean.”

Use “he or she,” “him or her.”

He or she should contact his or her dean.

Avoid using “s/he” or “he/she,” “him/her.”

Re-work the sentence.

Contact the dean if you need a new computer.

Use plural nouns with plural pronouns.

Instructors who need a new computer should contact their dean.

Eliminate the pronoun.

Instructors who need a new computer should contact the dean.

Many style guides accept the use of the plural pronouns “they” and “their” with antecedents such as “anyone,” “everyone,” “someone” to provide a gender neutral statement.

Everyone should decide whether they want to come.
Anyone can request their grade.  

A noun that is clearly singular, however, should not be used with a plural pronoun; for example, avoid constructions such as “A student must inform their instructor if they will not be able to attend.” In most cases, sentences can be re-worked to make the pronoun and its antecedent agree; e.g., “Students must inform their instructor if they will not be able to attend.”

Avoid indicating marital or family status or physical appearance unless necessary in the context.

When titles are used they should be used consistently for all people listed.

Use the neutral “Ms.” as a general rule, but if a woman has indicated a preference to be addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.,” respect this preference.

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5.4 Sexuality and gender identity

In all references be guided by the preference of those concerned if possible.

“Gay” is often used to refer just to gay men but can be used to include lesbians. The preferred usage is as an adjective, i.e., “gay men,” “gay women,” “gay people.” Avoid use of “gay” as a noun, e.g. “gays.”

Some other preferred terms: “lesbian,” “bi” or “bisexual,” “transgendered,” “transsexual,” “trans,” “transman,” “transwoman,” “intersexed,” “two-spirited,” “queer,” “genderqueer,” “gender questioning,” and “bigendered.”

When referring to partners, consider “same-sex” as an alternative to “homosexual” or “gay,” e.g. “same-sex partners.”

“Transgendered” is used to embrace both transgendered and transsexual people and is often abbreviated to “trans” or combined with other gender terms, e.g., “transman,” “transwoman.”

The word “transgender” is an umbrella term used to refer to people who do not fit well within traditional concepts of gender and who may feel as though their biological sex (male, female, intersexed, etc.) and their socially expected gender (man, woman, etc.) don’t match up.

The word “intersex” refers to people who, on a physical level, have a mix of typically male or female characteristics.
Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and trans Aboriginal people in North America use the term “two-spirited” to describe themselves. The word “two-spirited” is more used by Aboriginal people who live in large multiethnic urban environments. Those who live in rural areas or Aboriginal communities may have terms in their own languages to identify non-heterosexual or gender variant people in their communities. “Two-spirited” is a cultural and social Aboriginal term, although in some cases it may be also be a religious one.

“Queer” still comes across as pejorative for some older people, though many younger people have reclaimed the word as a descriptor for all non-heterosexual orientations.
Avoid the term “sexual preference,” since “preference” suggests a choice and many gay people do not see their sexuality as an option. Many prefer to speak of sexual orientation, gender identity or sexuality.

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5.5 Mental and physical disabilities

The terms used to refer to people with disabilities are evolving. Employment equity legislation speaks of persons with disabilities. “Person/people with disabilities” and “disabled people” are used for the most part interchangeably in disability scholarship/disability studies. Some people with disabilities prefer one over the other. As in other cases, it is better to ask the individual what he or she prefers—if such terminology is even necessary in the situation. Most times, there is no need to refer to the disability. When there is a need, the following guidelines can be useful.

Avoid defining people by their disorders or depersonalizing people by turning descriptors into nouns, e.g. “the disabled,” “the blind,” “an epileptic,” “a schizophrenic.”

Put the person first, not the disability.

“With” phrases are useful.

person with Down syndrome
person with schizophrenia
diagnosed with mental illness
living with fibromyalgia   

“Is” or “has” phrases can be useful.

a person who is blind
a person who is deaf or hard of hearing
a person who has a visual or hearing impairment
a person who has epilepsy

“Visual impairment” or “sight impairment” are often used to indicate some loss of vision or as alternatives to “blind.” Be aware that some individuals or groups may dislike the use of “impaired.”

Preferred terms are “deaf” or “hard of hearing” rather than “hearing impaired.”

Use factual rather than negative or value-laden references. A person may have a condition but may not necessarily “suffer” from it.

“wheelchair user” rather than “wheelchair-bound person”
a person with a mobility issue who uses a wheelchair
“someone who had a stroke” rather than “stroke victim”

There is often a societal stigma attached to mental illness or disability which makes some people wary of disclosing their condition or referring to it as a mental or psychiatric disability. Some prefer the terms “invisible,” “unapparent,” “non-apparent” or “non-physical disabilities.” “People with mental health problems, difficulties or conditions” can be more neutral and may be considered more appropriate than terms that victimize or medicalize people.

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5.6 “Race” and ethnicity

The Employment Equity Act refers to members of visible minorities as those who are “non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.” This whole topic has been the subject of much discussion and the concept of “race” is widely challenged as a valid scientific category. However, it is recognized that people who are visibly in a minority because of their skin colour or identifiable “racial” background may face various types of barriers which may have social implications that need to be addressed.

Groups and individuals within these groups should be identified by the names they choose for themselves.
Some people prefer the terms “racialized women and men” or “person of colour.”

The term “racialized” is useful in referring to individuals or groups who question or reject the validity of the concept of “race” imposed upon them as a category of identity.

The use of the term “visible minority” is complicated, because minority status is relative and depends on which geographic area a person is in. Those in Canada who may be considered a racialized or visible minority are likely to be considered in the majority in many other parts of the world.
Avoid stereotypes, generalizations or assumptions about ethnic or “racial” groups. Try to be inclusive in the use of examples, where appropriate, to take account of diversity in the university population.

Be wary of the use of some expressions or proverbs that may be culture-bound and may contain stereotyping, racial or otherwise inappropriate connotations.

Some people prefer reference to ethnicity rather than colour for groups, where such references seem necessary, e.g. African Canadian.

Be aware that some references can, even unintentionally, extend to racial connotations (for example, when the word “black” denotes negative attributes, such as: a black mood, black magic, a black heart, a black day).

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